Rabbi Gila Caine: Places of Goodness

by Rabbi Gila Caine

Rabbi Gila Caine

(Edmonton) – How good are your tents, Jacob: your dwelling places, Israel?

ה־טֹּֽבוּ אֹהָלֶֽיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּ֒נֹתֶֽיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל

My son sings this verse all afternoon, usually changing “Ma Tovu” (how good are) to “Ma Tofu” (how tofu are), but he is six years old and his mother is vegetarian, and we enjoy his funny, two-language play on words.

I think of telling him this could be a wonderful Channukah song, but what have our desert tents to do with the defiled Temple  —(בית המקדש Beit HaMikdash) and a bit of oil? That could be confusing for him, but we adults need to deal with confusion.

Channukah is a festival of light in darkness, originating in the tears of trauma and the filth of death and sin before the oil burned and light shone. Beit HaMikdash had to be purified of idolatry and fanaticism. Our communal home was also tainted by all the pain suffered in years of subjugation and war. It is important to pause and remember this component. Most retellings of the story skim over the crucial cleansing with something like: “They came into the temple, it was in shambles, they cleaned it up,” followed by much detail on the issue of oil.

The festival of Channukah is about placing home at the centre of our existence. The Beit HaMikdash is not just “the house of holiness” in Hebrew; it should also be read as “the holiness of the home.” It symbolizes a place where we feel we fully belong, a structure to hold the pure light of our soul (signified by the Menorah, a topic for another time). What has become of our homes after the long months of Covid -19? Many people I meet have been struggling more and more with unemployment or the fear of it, with illness and death, with exhaustion and grief.

For some, the home that used to be a place of rest is now closing in on them, a sphere of loneliness, even for those with family around. But what of those who have not felt human touch in almost a year? For many, home is becoming a complicated place, where physical, spiritual, and emotional T’umah (defilement) is creeping in through no fault of our own. This is what happens when the world goes through illness, pollution, and suffering, so our obligation is to begin by cleansing our own homes.

This year Channukah is calling us to intentionally observe the sacred aspect of our home and to dedicate those eight days to clean our own private Mikdash, spiritually and physically. For those of us who have a place to live, Channukah is also a time to be grateful for having a home and to recommitting ourselves to supporting those who do not.

The blessing “How good are your tents, Jacob: your dwelling places, Israel” reminds us every morning that we are truly blessed with wonderful dwellings, and that our homes can be places of wonder and goodness. We light the Chanukiah every night for eight nights to remind ourselves, and the world around us, that this is the miracle. Not somewhere else in another time and place, but here now, in our homes, our little Mikdashim, where we have the potential to create small circles of beauty, love and kindness. And if we begin the work of purification ourselves, there will be a great light shining out of our windows this winter.

חג חנוכה שמח

Rabbi Gila Caine is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton.

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