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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chanukah Teaching - Dec 2008

A week ago Saturday, leading services on skis at Copper and it was very, very cold. As our group gathered, several people asked me, "How long does the service need to be? "Can you make it quick Jamie?"

We moved quickly from Barchu, to Shema to the Amidah, (leaving out several major prayers like Veahavtah and Michamocha to name a few.) I overheard someone whisper, "Wow, she really is the express rabbi!"

I gave my teaching and then someone asked, "Jamie what is between us and the chocolate?" (I always give our chocolate at end of a service.) I said, "How about the Kaddish?" and skipped Aleinu.

And so that is how I earned my newest nickname, "The Express Rabbi." I also learned, which I did not know, that when my husband Jeff explains the philosophy of the Adventure Rabbi program he says, "We do Jewish stuff outdoors, quickly."

I started thinking about the Shabbat morning service and how long in tends to be, compared to our 9 minute cold day version. When I do an indoor service, the service might be as long as an hour and a half. Other rabbis tend more toward two and half and even a four hour service is not uncommon for Shabbat morning.

It was not always like this. Over the centuries, as more liturgy was composed, the service grew and grew. Aleinu for example, was composed during Talmudic times for the Rosh Hashanah service and only later was it included in the daily service. Adon Olam, composed in the 11th century, also hailed from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.

If you have ever felt like a service goes on and on and on, then you had good company with the early Reformers. In the 1800s, the creators of Reform Judaism became the first the first Jews ever to shorten the service instead of lengthening it. Out went he repletion of the Amidah, out went the repetitions of the Hatzi Kaddish, that page markers of sorts, which demarcate each section from the next.

Many of us find that this experience of "less" enhances our prayer experience, rather than takes away from it. As an extreme, I'll offer our Yom Kippur retreat where we might recite no more than four or five prayers. However each prayer gets the full focus of our attention. For example, before we chanted Kol Nidre, we thought about it, talked about it and journaled about it. We each came to grips with what it meant to us personally and for our group collectively. By the time we said the words, they were fully of meaning for us.

Sometimes less is truly an opportunity to hone our attention and increase our focus.

Our current economy is forcing many of us to reacquaint ourselves wit the concept of less. Can we use this financial hardship as a spiritual opportunity?

There is a teaching in Chanukah that I think can help us realign our thoughts toward the power of less.

We all know the tradition that each night of Chanukah we add one candle to the menorah. But did you know this was not always so? In the first century there were two great rabbis, each with his own academy, who debated how Judaism should be practiced, including how we should light the menorah. The Talmud offers both opinions, citing that they each have merit for different times.

Rabbi Hillel taught that each night we should add one candle, symbolizing the number of nights that the mitzvah of Chanukah has been completed

Rabbi Shammai, (50 BCE–30 CE), took the opposite stance, beginning with all the candles and taking one away each night. He taught that we should look ahead to how many night are left. Each night we take away one candle, so that by the end of the holiday we have only once candle (plus the shames.)

It occurred to me, that Shammai's teaching might have a modern application. We are accustomed to using Hillel's method, adding one candle a night, and associated the increases light with a corresponding increase in awesomeness. Adding candles encourages us to focus on more to come.

But what if instead we took away a candle each night and tried to teach ourselves to focus on the beauty that becomes apparent when there is less? Eight candles, then seven, then six, and so on until we are looking at one candle, plus the shames, shining ever so bright? Less candles, but also less distraction.

This may prove to be the spiritual challenge of this season. Can we find the beauty, the awe, the spiritual uplift of less instead of more? I believe we can.

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