Sunday, December 21, 2008

Mendy's Song

On Friday night Mendy, one of our twins, sang a Yiddish song that praises the holy day and speaks of taking its blessings into the week. He sang it again last night. It brought us such joy I thought I'd post it for you to listen to.

Chana's Chanuka Poem

Chanuka will be here in a few hours. The Menorah is waiting to be polished. And I'm waiting to be inspired, ignited by the light of the inner mystical wellsprings of the Torah that shine from the flames.

When my daughter Chana was nine, I did some homeschooling with her. Here's a poem she wrote about the holiday. And a painting by Rothko ("Number 19", from the Art Institute of Chicago. It was sent out in the Chanuka card. If you aren't on our mailing list and would like to sign up, click here.

Greasy, gold.
Eight lights shine
And dance and flicker
In front of the mezuza.
Happily, gratefully, we light the menora,
Spin, spin little draidel, spin.
Quick!  Don't miss it!
Take a latke,
greasy, gold,

By Chana, age 9

The Menorah and the Moriah

Chanuka's here and I have something to share. About a year ago, I participated in a Shabbaton in Milwaukee. It has remained one of the highlights of my travels. Whilst there, I met Maida Silverman, an illustrator, author and craftswoman. Here's an article she sent me about a plant that resembles the Menorah. The drawing at left is hers too.  Thanks Maida. I found it intriguing. And I loved your book, "A City Herbal: Love, Legend and Uses of Common Weeds."

The Menorah and the Moriah

By Maida Silverman

“…He (Bezalel) made the Menorah of pure gold, he made the Menorah hammered out…its base and its shaft, its cups and knobs…Six branches emerged from its sides, three branches of the Menorah from its side and three branches of the Menorah from its second side…”

Exodus: 37:17-18

The menorah has been a symbol of the Jewish people for more than three thousand years.  As they wandered in the Sinai Desert, the Children of Israel carried the menorah with them.  Its lamps were lit in the Sanctuary that accompanied them wherever they went.  The menorah’s light illuminated the first and Second Temples in Jerusalem until the Second Temple was destroyed by Titus, a Roman general.

The Temple and its precious menorah were gone.  But the lights of the menorah were not.  Never extinguished, these lights – faithful beacons of faith – reminded the Jewish people, no matter how scattered and dispersed they were throughout the world, they would someday return to Zion.

After the miracle of Chanuka, when one jar of oil miraculously burned for eight days, menorahs – with an additional branch commemorating the miracle – were lit wherever Jews lived.

The detailed description of the menorah of the Sanctuary is noted for its use of words from the plant world.  Exodus 37:17-34 describes its “almond-shaped calyxes, flowers and branches.”  But it is the branches that emerge from the central shaft that define the structure of the candelabra.

Centuries later, this description aroused the interest of renowned Israeli botanist, Dr. Ephraim Hareuveni.  He was particularly intrigued by the description of the branches.  Bezalel had fashioned the menorah when the Jews were wandering in the desert.  Was it possible that plants grew there whose shape resembled the menorah?  Dr. Hareuveni and his wife Hannah decided to search for them.

He and his wife discovered that such a plant does indeed exist.  Throughout Israel, from the mountains of Lebanon to the Sinai desert, a plant grows wild whose shape illustrates the verse in Exodus that describes the menorah.  It is a member of a plant group called salvia, which includes peppermint, spearmint and sage.  The particular plant the Hareuvenis found is called the moriah.

Many people are familiar with the menorah whose branches are curved outwards in semi-circular fashion from the central stem.  However, in his commentary on the Torah, Rashi writes that the branches of the menorah extended upward in a diagonal.  Indeed the Hebrew word the Torah uses to describe the branches is ohbe which implies a straight line.

In his “Commentary on the Mishna” and his Mishna Torah, the Rambam provided drawings of the Menorah, showing the branches as extending diagonally in straight lines.  And in the Torah commentary written by his son, Rabbeinu Avraham, we read, “The six branches …extend upwards from the center shaft of the menorah in a straight line, as depicted by my father, and not in a semi-circle as depicted by others.”

The moriah plant grows to be eighteen inches tall.  The delicate flowers may be white or pink.  The leaves and flowers are very fragrant.  When crushed they emit a refreshing minty-sage aroma.  The central stem grows from a leafy rosette of large, ruffled leaves.

The central stem and straight branches of the moriah plant are square shaped, not rounded.  They grow opposite each other – four branches (sometimes more) opposite each other on either side of the main stem, and at an angle to it.  The resemblance of the moriah plant to the menorah drawn by the Rambam nearly 900 years ago and to the Menorah of Lubavitcher Chassidim is striking.

Maida Silverman is an illustrator, author and craftswoman. She is the author of "A City Herbal: Love, Legend and Uses of Common Weeds." Her illustrations include those for "The Poetry of Chaim Nachman Bialik" which was voted one of the fifty Best Books of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1973. Her stitchery projects and writings have appeared in "Family Circle" and "Seventeen" magazines.

JLI SoulMaps Course Completed

This past week we concluded the Tuesday JLI Tanya course in Crown Heights. It was called SoulMaps. And that just what it was - a course of study uncovering the landscape of the soul.

Here's a quotation of an email that came in from one of the students:

"I just wanted to say thank you for the incredible Tanya classes you taught these past few weeks...It gave a whole new meaning to Tanya...Tanya is alive, and now talks to me! Every time I sat in your classes, I had the feeling of (this might sound strange) my soul being elevated. I walked home in an uplifted mood...Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

There have been requests for a weekly, text-based class on Tanya in Crown Heights.  If you're interested, let us know.

The course, created by the Jewish Learning Institute and authored by Rabbi Shais Taub, was excellent. But learning needs more than an outstanding curriculum. So I want to thank all the women who joined in the sessions. (Omek had 89 women in total enroll and ran two sessions per week.) The young woman who wrote the email above has no idea as to how her presence radiated across the room and inspired me to try and teach from a place of truth and honoring.

Our next JLI course will begin in February. It's a course on Talmudic Ethics. We'll be examining compelling contemporary legal scenarios through the lens of Talmudic thinking. It promises to be intriguing. If you're open to opening your mind to new ways of thinking, contact us at to find out more.

Looking forward,

Intense learning...

Intense sharing...

Deep shifts...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Weekend Retreat in Taos New Mexico

A couple of weeks ago, I had the great privilage of joining Rabbi Chaim and Devorah Leah Shmukler at their annual retreat in Taos, New Mexico.   It was an honor to share in their work.  The group was breathtaking, as was the location, the learning and the sharing.

On Sunday, a group of us went for a walk in Carson National Forest.  We hiked to the top of a mountain.  Along the way, my friend Nancy snapped a picture of a tarantula!  But she didn't tell us about it until after we'd done a meditation on the bond that ties us to our ancestral parents (horim in Hebrew) and their relationship to mountains (harim) - whilst lying on the stones that were warming beneath the rising sun!  We rejoiced at having been kept in the dark and snapped this picture on our way down, where back at the hotel we met the group for prayer, breakfast and more learning.

There was a long wait 'till our flight home and we were blessed to have a private tour of Santa Fe, particularly the long street of art galleries.  Some of the work was as kitsch as it comes.  But then, from the car, I saw into a gallery that beamed of great art.  Being in the space fed my soul.  Each painting was thoughtful and subtle, evocative of many layers of being.

Out back was a garden studded with sculptures.  One of the artists is a woman who focuses on women and birds, examining the themes of fragility, strength, being bound and soaring free.  She had recently created a magnificent bronze of a dress fluttering in the wind, evocative of the spiritual flight we all long for.  It's the one at left.

The afternoon wasn't the only free time we had.  Our layover was a couple of hours.  So once at the airport, Nancy and I took a cab to catch some dueling piano we heard about.  Turned out when we got to the place, there were two empty pianos facing each other and a group of friends ready for an open mike session.  We had something to drink, watched a little, smiled a lot and then made our way back to the airport.

Here are some more pics of the retreat:

Looking into the valley from the mountain

Yup, there's that spider!

New friends around one of the indoor fireplaces

On the way to the airport and Home - which I reached in time to have breakfast with the kids before they went to school!  Thank you Devorah Leah and Chaim Shmukler for inviting me.  May you be blessed with abundant success in all you do.  (You can visit them at