This week I heard two radically different speakers dealing with issues of Jewish life and religion.
On Wednesday night, I was privileged to hear former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He spoke about the challenges Israel faces. Ehud Barak is a man of great strength and confidence and a real modern-day hero. Without men like him, we, the Jewish people, would not experience the lives we share today. We live in comfort and relative ease. Our Jewish future is one that carries hope, in spite of many challenges.
Yesterday, I heard David Gregory speak. Gregory is a Jewish man of great renown. He was NBC’s Senior White House Correspondent during the George W. Bush presidency and then served as the moderator of Meet the Press. Over the last few years, he has immersed himself in a journey of faith through study and through relationships with other people of faith and with great teachers. He has discovered faith and God, and that has brought him comfort during life’s trials, strength in life’s struggles, and hope during times of despair. His recent book How’s Your Faith? is his testimony to his spiritual work.
These are incredibly different models of men who are devoted to their Jewish lives.
As I thought about them and their words, I thought about Hanukah and what it represents for contemporary Jews. On one hand, it truly is a holiday of faith. The miracle of the oil is a small part, but its message is huge. We remain alive because we have faith and hope. And we believe that there is a Divine dimension to our existence. On the other hand, we also know that Hanukah would not be, without the Maccabees and their extraordinary military victory. They had to fight the fight to ensure Jewish survival.
Therein may lie our challenge. We need to be hopeful and idealistic while remaining pragmatic and realistic. We are challenged by this.
Strong faith can carry us. It can bring us peace. It can make us more loving. It can open our hearts. It can bring hope. To find that faith, one needs to enter a journey of learning and conversation, meditation and prayer, self-reflection, and generosity. But we also understand that our tradition contains a dimension of reality that is meant to guide our behaviors. And so we participate in ritual and activate behaviors that celebrate and control our lives. And we know that our faith is not to be lived alone, but expressed through family and community within the context of a larger world.
This is why the rabbinic tradition of which we are heirs is so complicated. Because life is not simple and simple faith cannot stand its many challenges. We need to combine behaviors that matter with thought and with spirit.
Perhaps as we approach Shabbat we can understand a little deeper why it’s both spiritual and practical. We observe its practices and we feel its meaning. And then comes Hanukah, where we celebrate a miracle of light and gratitude for those who ensure our survival.
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt