On Chanukah, Light and Finding a Place in Darkness

Zot Chanukah - the last day. THIS, THIS is Chanukah. The light, not the dark. The joy, not the pain. The beauty, not the ugly. The harmony, not the duality.

The victory of Hanukkah is very dual in nature. The righteous triumphed over the wicked! The weak over the strong! The few over the many! The deniers over those who immerse themselves in goodness.

So we've spent a week bathed in this light, and we feel pretty comfortable getting back to dual state. Getting back to triumphing, ‪#‎winning‬ over all that is dark and uncomfortable. You can't always light up a candle and sing a song to feel good - sometimes it's winter and you've worked late and the subways are behind and there's sludge on the ground and bills to be paid and it's just a long dark winter and you just want to wallow for a bit.

But let's remember Chanukah. Let's remember that it took the year of darkness to get to the singlefocused place of light; and that we sometimes need the salt to make the sugar sweet. We can't beat ourselves up for not being in constant bright light state - the dark gives us the ability to appreciate the light times, does it not?

But that we just lived for one whole week in a place that was only brightness and lightness, and maybe, just maybe, we can bring a taste of that into every single day of this solid year, even if it's just for a brief moment, a tiny spark of conversation with a beloved one or playing a favourite song or treating yourself to something delightful, just because.

Darkness is only an absence of light - so let's embrace it and recognize that it's the path, the tunnel, the birth canal that will take us through - with our candles, our lanterns in hand! - to the day when it will be only bright.


Chanukah's Fifth Light

The fifth light of Chanukah is a night celebrated for its inability to ever fall during the Shabbat, it's entrenchment within the days of the week. The Fifth night is always a light among the darkness. Where light always trumps dark, the peak of the darkness for the year that always has a crack of light within.

Sometimes you need to dig deep to find it, sometimes you need to forget about looking for it and just feel it, sometimes you need to act like it's already there and it will start to illuminate the way for you. But the light - it's there, whether you can see it or feel it or hear it.

And all you have to do, is use it to light up the rest of the world - the nooks and crannies and dark pieces within and without that might never be fully washed with bright light, but a tiny little candlelight makes it a little less black, a little more bright, and the next thing you know, every single person is a carrier of incredible, divine light.

The New Year for Chassidism: Redeeming the Soul at the Start of Winter

So it’s the first day of December, and suddenly we’re all like, oh wow, one month left to finish that list of resolutions we started a mere eleven months ago!

It’s also a day celebrated in the Jewish world for the impact its made on many a journey to self improvement, a day known as the “Rosh Hashana” – “Jewish New Year” of Chabad Chassidic mysticism, the system of philosophy and spiritual growth defined by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, a holy Rabbi released from incarceration in Czarist prison several hundred years ago today.

The moment of the Alter Rebbe’s release was marked by his recital of a Psalm “My Soul has been Redeemed from Battle in Peace” – kinda an oxymoron, if you ask me. Battles aren’t exactly peaceful, amirite?

Winning the battle that is spiritual growth and self improvement comes about in two ways: First, there's creating a checklist of bad habits and developing the tools to battle them, a messy, warlike way if any; but then there's the process of undergoing a real test or challenge in life, and possessing the internal peace and core strength, if you will, to remain in peace no matter what battle rages is all around.

The second element, that peaceful redemption, is all about connecting to divine wisdom that brings on innate peace by helping to understand who and what we are, and what we stand for. This one comes about through those crazy moments, the real test periods that question our very ego and identity, rip out the carpet from underneath and demand you dig deep to find the inner resources of peace and redefine your sense of self. The only way to train for that one? Developing core strength (pilates!), because no weapons or tools can assist when you need your full body weight against the door. The release from battle is peaceful, this time, because we’re digging deep, finding internal peace, and transcending that balagan of ridiculousness that’s the battle raging around us.

And our training regimen? The study of divine spiritual teachings, and if may say so myself, the mystical side of Torah is a great place to start.

In celebrating this day and the hundreds of years of divine knowledge that's flowed through as a result, I'm grateful for these teachings that have shaped my life and helped me grow, and grateful to all of you for allowing me to share them with you through the occasional lengthy Facebook jam. May we merit on this day to grow in the learning and study of this incredible framework of Divine Torah teachings - of which all her ways are peace - and in the path and direction of true Chassidism - from the root word "Lovingkindness" – through to real world application - the hardest part, but so the best. Good Yom Tov!

On Gratitude, Jacob and Giving Thanks

Gratitude. It's the word that's defined my life the most these last few months, as I've journeyed from New York to the playa to the playa of life that never ends, from west coast to lord knows where I'll end up next. I'm grateful for each and every one who's been part of this journey, from those I've met on the road to those who've supported me from beyond at my place of origin to my final destination, wherever that may be.

I've been humbled by the extent to which humans can come through for one another in an outpouring of love and benevolence; the efforts expended by people everywhere for the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, gifts of the gracious and everlasting spirit that pervades our universe, and the divine orchestrations of our reality that's shown me that we are never alone, we are always taken care of, and we as a planet will always be one, undivided and united in essence.

In the Torah of our time, the weekly portion of "VaYishlach", we learn of Jacob's prayer as he travels. He articulates how he feels small, insignificant, humbled, in relation to the bounty he's received from God. Though it may sound that way, self negation isn't the key to gratitude, Jacob teaches us - our gratitude comes from remembering that what we are receiving is merely a drop in the bucket in relation to the divine goodness that's out there for all of us, if only we tap in. If we adjust our expectations - forget the gold plated toilets and breathe the fresh air instead - and widen our eyes, we can be grateful for everything - for who are we but recipients, what are we but divine emanations of beauty and love and mercy?

Commemorating a historical event that doesn't sit well in our collective national consciousness is tough, and reconciling the cognitive dissonance with Instagrams of pumpkin pie doesn't quite work either. So I'd like to offer a wish and a prayer that we can reconcile the horrors of our past by working to a better future; acknowledging the great benevolence of others toward the hungry and poor throughout times past; and bring down the original harvest celebration of abundance celebrated for timeless years past around the globe, not just in America.

To a future where no one goes hungry and everyone has the facilities to give, receive, and express thanks for everything in between.


Why We're Talking About Planned Parenthood The Day Before Yom Kippur

So Yom Kippur is a mere 24 ish hours away from us, a new government just about a year away from full manifestation, and our world still has a couple kinks we need to iron out before we’re ready to embrace our future with the lightness and purity of this new Jewish year. That’s because in just the last week, our guardian politicians who are supposed to have the best interests of the population at heart (I’m travelling far back here to the tenets of democracy, let’s not pretend that’s ever been a happening thing) have voted to defund an entire organization that focuses only on providing health, healing and preventative care to marginalized persons in society — oh yes, that’s right, we call it Planned Parenthood.

When a woman has an abortion, that’s a choice that she makes, along with — if present — her partner, family members, friends, perhaps a religious advisory figure. Often it’s a torturous decision, deliberating between her current and future self, her dreams of motherhood and her future children, her partner and her realities. Whatever goes on for a woman in this situation is not the place of a conversation such as this, because it’s not the actual point that brings up so much sadness at this time when the government decides that Planned Parenthood is not a priority. That’s because, as the numbers have shown us, Planned Parenthood’s facilitation of pregnancy terminations is a small piece of the pie in comparison to the other services they provide for women — often the lowest-earning, lowest-standing, lowest-conditions-of-living women here on United States soil. This piece isn’t for showing those numbers — there’s a whole Internet for that — and you can choose to watch edited videos too, at the time. I’m not debating abortion here, or motherhood, or women’s health. I’m debating the attitudes.

And what is that attitude? The Planned Parenthood debate, the fact that it exists at all, is a telling factor about our nation’s approach to women, and their health — which, spoiler alert, is a lot different from men’s. I’m not drawing any pictures today, but let’s remember that what the attitude to Planned Parenthood is telling us is that women’s health is not prized, that the woman’s right to make this decision at all, to have this conversation, to have her health rights protected — that is being ignored, in favor of a holier-than-thou attitude that has everything to do with money, politics and a blatant and open disrespect towards women as people — and nothing to do with love and life.

Earlier this year, I was involved in a similar conversation around the legal Jewish divorce, also known as the Gett. The Gett system has been under fire for many years now, due to an inherently implied law that states that the Gett must be initiated and given by the man; and is then received by the woman to create a legally binding Jewish divorce. If the man is viewed to be “coerced” in any way to give this Gett, the divorce is no longer legal which sets up a slew of legal ramifications in the status of any future children born to this woman. For this reason, Rabbis are slow to force men to give a Gett, and many men use this advantage in their favor, withholding a Gett for whatever reason — perhaps until a proper custody settlement is arranged, perhaps until the financial settlement goes in their favor, or often, sadly, for pure torturous emotional abuse. The result? Their former wife is now an Agunah — literally, a chained women, who cannot remarry according to Jewish law and is often stuck without the ability to move on in her life. The Agunah crisis is real in the Jewish world, and particularly in Israel where most marriages are performed via Rabbinic courts. Agunot can spend years waiting for a Gett that sometimes never comes, while also compromising her future, her ability to remarry, and ironically — for a system that seems to weight the sanctity of the family and reproduction above all else — her ability to bear future children with a new partner.

What struck me about the entire Gett conversation was not how many men were withholding Gittin; or how rampant the epidemic is across the US or Israel or even my homeland of Australia — but how it’s really just a symptom, not of domestic abuse but of the court system that has enabled what was once a protective mechanism for women to become something that has the power — and indeed, is often — used as a tool of domestic abuse against women.

Sure, not every man withholds a Gett to be abusive — sometimes he genuinely believes he’s just holding out for a week or two, until a few things can be ironed out, after all, why not tie up all loose knots at the same time — but simultaneously, he’s enabling the Gett to become a tool for abuse by indicating that until he is satisfied, the piece of paper will not materialize.

This is called general abuse against women, because it’s a systemic flaw that does not take into account the rights of women.

I’m all for separate, not equal. This isn’t just separate, though. This is devaluing. This is dehumanizing. This is placing one human’s value atop another.

And so with Planned Parenthood. I’m not going to pretend I’ve read everything the last few days, but I will state what I know about Planned Parenthood, and the benefits it’s given many women I know in daily context, as a no-cost women’s healthcare provider on this soil.

Planned Parenthood is not a factory for abortions, and they are certainly not selling baby parts for financial benefit. This has been clear from the start to anybody who digs beyond a Facebook headline. What it is, however, is a place where women of low income — hell, even medium income in a place like New York, where many cannot afford health insurance but do not make the cut for Medicaid — can go for medical emergencies; routine health screenings; and all the other things that people with Ladybits need because — spoiler alert — we kinda have different requirements than those without. This also means needing to visit medical professionals more than the once-in-six-years-because-my-wife-pushed-me or oops-there’s-a-lump-i-wonder-what-that-is stimulus, because as ladies, our bodies are changing all the time — monthly, in fact, in case you weren’t aware — and therefore have all kinds of things that need to be poked and prodded and checked into and looked out for, because — ah yes, here’s another thing — we also have a slew of illnesses and maladies and potential dramas that can arise out of said Ladybits when they’re not busy conceiving, gestating or yes, sometimes terminating pregnancies. But our politicians, and the grand “Defenders of Family Values”, will have us forget that. Because — that’s right — money.

So it comes back to the Agunah/Gett system: While not ALL men abuse women; and not ALL men withhold divorce from their wives; the fact is that a system which is set up to provide an inherent advantage to the men and therefore, ramps up the chances that it will be used as a tool for abuse by — guess who — that’s right, abusive men.

So it must be said to the politicans who decided that defunding women’s health programmes for the sake of budget while crying religion — maybe not all men disrespect women; maybe you think you’re all about the souls of unborn babies (and don’t start me on that, because I’ll cry for the babies every day that are being killed through poverty, starvation, lack of opportunity for their moms, and this world that we call modern but hasn’t remembered the basic precepts of ancient society, hint — starts with love, ends with neighbor) and not the health of all the ladies you know; but when the system is inherently stacked against women who can’t have their basic health needs taken care of, then we know that there’s an issue that goes far beyond reproductive rights or choice: It’s about completely dismissing our needs.

And then it’s not separate or equal or anything in between — it’s straight up immoral, dismissive, and discriminatory.

When I first started talking about the Rabbinic dismissal of women also known as the Gett, I referred to a conversation online last year about the evolution of the Breast Pump — a popular gadget used by a significant percentage of women who return to work post baby, yet still extraordinarily noisy, cumbersome and inconvenient to use. The clincher? Technology has enabled us to create far sleeker, more sophisticated gadgets (I’m looking at you, iPhone) but as a “niche” product used primarily by women, it just hasn’t been on the forefront. A “hack the breast pump” event sought to create a smoother design and noted that despite being used by powerful women the world over, no matter their status they’re all locking office doors and creating barricades in HR departments to wield a piece of equipment that, with modern technology, “should be as small as an iPhone and as quiet as a Prius by now”. Once again, the considerations of a society that notes male priorities over females forgets to advance technologies, products, and legal and healthcare systems to not just cater to — oh no, I’m not talking about becoming female ADVOCATES here — but merely, perhaps, female CONSCIOUS. Merely being aware of the needs and desires and building them into our existing systems so we can create a truly loving, just, caring, healthful society for all.

It’s also the day before Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we celebrate relationships. We celebrate our relationship with the Divine as we enter into the holiest and most intimate time with God; and we celebrate our relationship with others as we heal past wrongdoings and march into a brighter future. We read of the forbidden relationships in the afternoon Torah readings and while we’re often taken aback at this citation of impurity at such a pure moment, it’s there to remind us of the lowest levels to which relationships can fall — and the highest highs which they can reach, when we are mindful and aware of our fellow man or woman, their needs and how we can work together to create something even greater as a whole.

On Yom Kippur, we ask forgiveness for our wrongdoings, both between human beings and one another; and between ourselves and the Divine. And while I’m not going to call out anybody on their own personal reflection of the year that’s passed, I’m going to do mine. I’ve apologized within myself for not doing enough, but now it’s time to talk to my sisters, using the strength and power of this day to attain forgiveness from other humans and from the Divine.

This is for me to apologize, to the women I have wronged by not noting how much they were battling, how hard they were fighting, the uphill trail they were hiking. I’m sorry to you, my beloved sisters, for failing to support you where support could have been granted, when you stood in a palatial courtroom built on uneven foundations and cried for someone to help you hold the beams in place as you stepped from one room to another. To the women who rely on Planned Parenthood for regular screenings and don’t have the social media accounts to cry aloud and exhort you all to vote, call your congressman, share and cry out; to the women stuck in cycles of divorce who need a finger pointed at the injustice of it all. I’m sorry, and I ask your forgiveness. And now, I am doing what I can.

And to the rest of the nation, the Internet nation; the Jewish nation; the American nation; the Human nation; I pray that this Yom Kippur we can see a real shift in our consciousness towards our fellow human being. That by healing our own relationships within our families and within ourselves; and starting to acknowledge; honor and respect the femininity that gave birth to us and that we carry within us; we can heal our own attitudes; and by default — the attitudes of communities, of cities, of nations, of governments, of legal systems, and of this world.

May we all be signed and sealed for a year of prosperity in every way, shape and form imaginable, for a year of love, joy, respect for all humanity, respect to that which nurtures and sustains us, and peace within ourselves and our communities for all time to come.