Sunday, March 30, 2008

Month-Long Chanukah Offers Second Chances

The Jewish Week, December 2007
I love it when Chanukah falls in early December. Long after the last candle has melted and the potato graters have been stashed away, the holiday refuses to disappear. Store clerks still seal the deal with a cheerful “Happy Chanukah,” menorahs still glisten at the mall, and school assemblies still sing “Dreidel.” In a year like this, Chanukah becomes a Jewish version of the holiday in the film “Groundhog Day,” recurring incessantly until, at last, as the calendar turns, the torch is passed to Tu b’Shvat.

Yes, I know that this miraculous, endless Chanukah has more to do with that Other December Holiday than with that fabled jug of inexhaustible oil. So why do I think that’s a good thing? Because, as the holiday extends through weeks three and four, outlasting even that stale latke smell embedded in every nook of the kitchen, it reminds us that Judaism places a premium on second chances.

A close friend will be returning in a few days from several months of military service in Iraq. Although he missed the official Chanukah with his family the first time around, he’ll be able to do it when he gets home without missing a beat. And in doing so, he’ll be following in the very footsteps of the Maccabees, who, according to some, created their new eight-day festival because they had been unable to commemorate the week-long holiday of Sukkot in their defiled temple two months earlier. The idea of a second chance celebration has additional precedence in the Torah, where a second Passover was instituted for those not able to participate fully in the ritual observance the first time around.

Judaism is filled with mulligans, which, unlike in golf, are perfectly legal. It’s not merely about second chance celebrations; it’s about having second chances at almost everything. The sages differentiated between transgressions committed intentionally and those committed by innocent error. The accidental sinner (“shogeg,”) is often given a halachic do-over, or at least the consequences of his actions are made far less severe, even for the most extreme of crimes.

It has become increasingly important to promote second chances, because our world has become so unforgiving. Ours has become a “gotcha” society, where every miscue is instantly immortalized on TV and in cyberspace. The political campaign now under way will be the most closely scrutinized ever, where thousands of bloggers, many unfettered by standards of journalistic ethics, will document each candidate’s every sniffle. There will be no margin of error. Think we’ve seen ruthlessness before? We’re about to enter an era where Swift Boats and Willie Horton will seem quaint.

In our unrelenting world, there is no place to hide, no benefit of the doubt and no room for the “shogeg.” All errors are immortalized digitally and scrutinized incessantly. Notice that every DVD now includes out-takes, which, in many cases have become as popular as the movie. In life, there no longer is a “take two,” and the words “unedited and uncut” have taken on a sacred aura. We can’t even be forgiven for our bloopers.

As American Jews have wandered farther from their traditional roots, even grandparents now often struggle to remember the Torah blessings and associated rituals. Rarely, now, do people get it right the first time around. We rabbis all have our favorite bar mitzvah bloopers. Like the time when a befuddled relative was dressing the Torah and was handed the silver breastplate along with the simple instruction, “Put it on.”

Which is exactly what she did.

My favorite shul blooper, related by a colleague, involves a student reciting the blessing over cookies, the one that usually concludes, “borei minei mezonot;” only this child said, “borei pri zonot,” thereby thanking God for the fruits of the world’s oldest profession.
Everyone makes mistakes. But at a time when the Jewish future requires that we try to nurture people into feeling comfortable on the bima, our “gotcha” culture feeds into their trepidation. No one wants to be humiliated, especially when the error will be seen live by hundreds of relatives, enshrined forever on the video and then maybe uploaded for millions to view on the Web (A recent search found 1,310 bar mitzvah and 809 bat mitzvah videos posted on YouTube.) “Trial and error” now means that if you make an error, you’ll face the most public of trials — with no second chance.

Judaism values highly the art of constructive correction. Leviticus implores us to rebuke our neighbor. Later authorities went to great lengths to demonstrate how this reproof must be delivered sensitively and privately to avoid humiliation.

Rabbis should be especially sensitive in this area, because so many see us as being “holier than thou,” even when we try desperately not to be. Rabbis are also prime victims of this “gotcha” culture. The high standards we are trying to set are the very same standards by which we are judged, so our mistakes are amplified. At life cycle events, the stakes are especially high; sometimes there can be no do-overs.

But for Chanukah there can be, so let’s keep on spinning that dreidel from here ‘til the ball drops, if that’s what it takes. Let’s keep the light shining all month — until we get it right.

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