A Message from Rabbi Tom: Havdalah at MCJC

January – February 2019 – Kislev/Tevet/Sh’vat
Volume 5780

Rabbi Tom Samuels

On November 17, the MCJC community gathered on a Saturday evening for a Havdalah program. We sang, prayed the mystical Havdalah service, ate and schmoozed (of course), and kids of all ages made Hanukkah menorahs out of pizza dough. We all experienced tremendous amounts of fun and joy.

Building on this great experience, we are planning a monthly Havdalah program throughout the year. Please watch our weekly e-nouncements for upcoming dates, logistics, and themes. 

With this in mind, I want to share some thoughts on Havdalah, and specifically on how we can find holiness in our everyday lives in a Jewish way.

Elie Wiesel, may his soul rest in peace, tells of the poet who was asked what thing he would save from his burning home – but only one thing. What would it be? The poet answered that he would save the fire itself, for without the fire, life would not be worth living. 

Fire plays an integral role throughout the Torah. The first act of Creation, creating light, leads to the creation of all sources of energy including fire. Soon afterward came the crowning event of Creation, Shabbat. And when the first Shabbat was over, Adam watched as the sun went down. An ever-deepening gloom unfolded, and Adam’s heart was filled with terror, lost in the absolute darkness. God gave Adam the intuition to rub two stones together to discover fire, upon which Adam exclaimed, “Blessed be the Creator of the lights of fire.” Thus the light of the first Shabbat was like the primordial light of the first day of Creation, in which it was possible to see from one end of the universe to the other, for on both days the light lasted and the darkness was held back. (From Howard Schwartz’s Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism)

This story is in stark contrast to the Creation myths of other cultures. In the Greek myth of Prometheus, Prometheus steals fire from the jealous gods and secretly shares it with the humans. For this he is chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.

In the Jewish tradition, the fire is neither stolen nor denied to humanity. It is a gift from God as part of a symbiotic relationship, whereby both God, the eternal, and man–the infinite and the finite — co-create and collaborate on the ongoing quest to make and improve the world. 

The Creation story is re-enacted every week on Shabbat. For six days there is an invigorating and intense creation process in the physical realm. We usher in Shabbat with light, the candles. On this seventh day, we cease activity in order to make room for the life of the soul. We welcome in our Neshama Yeteira, our additional soul. And then at the end of the Shabbat, we welcome back into our lives the Chol, the ever-potentially-holy everyday, with fire. (From Rabbi Pinchas Peli’s Torah Today)

The word Havdalah means to differentiate, or to distinguish. The entire ceremony is to distinguish between the Shabbat that we have just experienced, and the week that we are about to enter. 

We say three blessings: first over the wine, a symbol of joy. We take pleasure in what we have accomplished, and hope that it will continue to grow into the week. Then we say a blessing over the spices, whose fragrance we inhale to comfort our soul at the loss of Shabbat. Finally is the prayer over the flame, which symbolizes light and darkness and the ability to see the difference in a very deep way. 

The greatest tool we have for appreciating anything is the ability to distinguish and differentiate. When we see things as rare and unique, they stand out as special and somehow have their own place in the world. Yet all too often we have a hard time utilizing this tool and seeing things for their own uniqueness. Masses of people just become ordinary beings. Beautiful sunsets all start to look the same. Our challenge is to discern and see the minute differences that exist in the world, in order to appreciate their rare and unique qualities and thus take pleasure in their existence. (From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Covenant & Conversations: Exodus)

In the Havdalah ceremony, we set a braided candle aflame, and hold up our fingers to see the light and shadows dancing upon them. Shabbat is over. We mark its end with Havdalah and recognize the beginning of the week. For the week is not Shabbat. If we have used the Shabbat properly, however, we may be able to infuse some of it into our new week.

Rabbi Tom, MCJC

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