After weeks of antisemitic tirades in the news, the world seems especially dark and cold right now. At our virtual service on November 18th, Rabbi Steven looked to the stars for inspiration on how to create a little warmth and light in a world. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast, and join us at our next Shabbat services on Saturday, December 3rd and Friday, December 9th.
It has been another week.
I can’t imagine that many of us are surprised. We understand that when careless and hateful words are spoken by a public figure, there is a ripple effect. First, there are the words themselves (in this case, Ye tweeting that he would go “defcon 3” on Jews). Then, there is the back and forth on whether the person was in the wrong, whether we have the obligation (or even the ability) to censure them, whether our response has been too much or too little. In the week following, people who had previously kept similar antisemitic opinions to themselves feel emboldened — these range from the casually ignorant (see: Kyrie Irving and Dave Chapelle) to the intentionally hateful (see: neo-Nazis hanging signs above the 405 in Los Angeles). And then we brace ourselves, for when words begin to manifest as actions. Last week, it was the credible but nonspecific threat reported by the FBI to synagogues in New Jersey that — thankfully – never materialized. Was that it? Could we let down our guard? And then on Monday, graffiti along the Bethesda Trolley Trail — just outside of DC — that read “No Mercy for Jews.” And again on Monday, 39 tombstones defaced with swastikas at a Jewish cemetery just 26 miles north of Chicago.
And I hate to give voice to the fear that crouches in the back of my mind, that perhaps something worse is around the corner.
And I am tired of giving space to the haters, of any variety. Not just the antisemites, but the homophobes, and the racists, and the misogynists who have all received more air time than they deserve over these past few weeks with the midterm elections.
And I think about how in a week we begin the month of Kislev, and with it Hanukkah and the joy of the holiday season. I so badly want to capture that joy right now, to lean into the happy absurdity of Christmas carols playing this morning at my local Starbucks on November 18. Not to pretend that the darkness doesn’t exist. But to remember that alongside that darkness, we can create light.
We can create light. I know this to be true, I need this to be true. But when the darkness feels overwhelming, where do we begin?
So I have quite a few people in my life who are *very* into astrology. As someone who (surprise, surprise) has a robust interest in religion and spirituality, I’ve always found it fascinating. Do I believe our fates are determined by the stars? No. But I find any lens that helps us think about who we are and who we want to be helpful, in that it asks us to exercise our agency in becoming co-creators in what the future might hold.
Judaism is no stranger to astrology. Our twelve months, following the waxing and waning of the moon, have long been associated with the twelve astrological signs. Cheshvan, the month we are currently in, is linked to the sign of Scorpio. Kislev, which begins in a week, is connected to the sign of Sagittarius.
Both Cheshvan and Kislev are months of increasing darkness (as the latter ends, we experience the darkest night of the year — that is, the new moon closest to the winter solstice). And both of these months, with their associated signs, give us a hint on how we meet the growing dark – and in turn, create light.
Scorpio is a sign of turning inward and attending to our inner world. As a water sign, it is associated with the emotional self — and Scorpios are known for being intuitive and attuned (or, on the flipside, intense and brooding with a sharp sting; they are represented, after all, by the scorpion). It is a sign of intimacy, of deep connection. Cheshvan, the only month lacking holidays, is sometimes misunderstood as being a bitter time in the Hebrew calendar — but I like to think that, lacking the outward joy of our celebratory occasions or sadness of our days of mourning, it is a time for introspection — a moment to evaluate our inner life, to attend to our emotional needs, to connect with and cultivate the inner light that shines in each of us. One cannot give light to others without taking time to tend to our own.
Sagittarius is a sign of turning outward, of attending to the world around us. As a fire sign, it is associated with creativity and passion. Sagittarians are the explorers of the zodiac: curious, adaptable, adventurous (I’m going to admit some personal bias, I’m a Sagittarius). And to be fair, we’re also known for having a hard time committing to things and — as our symbol, the bow-wielding centaur would suggest —sometimes let our arrows fly without much thought as to where they might land (I’m picturing those same friends I mentioned earlier nodding vigorously at this moment). Like its associated sign, Kislev is about taking that inner light and projecting it outward, of sharing it with others. It is the month of Hanukkah, when we not only kindle light but place it in the window to share with the world. It is a time of sharing our joy: boundless, brilliant, and abundant.
Turning inward and turning outward, exploring our inner landscape and falling in love with what we might discover outside of us, tending to the light within you and sharing it — boldly, unapologetically — with the world: these are both ways we stand against the gathering darkness. And while we may find ourselves biased toward or better at one than the other (going to admit, learning to spend time with myself is a growing edge of mine), both approaches are necessary.
Through the months of Cheshvan and Kislev, Judaism expresses two important truths. First, that there is darkness. The world as it is, is not the world as we want it to be — and there are moments, like these past few weeks, when the gap between the two seems uncrossable. We are not a tradition of willful ignorance; rather, we are called to stand in the breach and give our attention to the brokenness we find there — antisemitism, yes, and also all the other hatreds that hold humanity back from becoming the best version of itself.
But then there is the second truth. We have the ability to create light. We have the ability to create light, to fill that void with love and joy and thoughtfulness and compassion — both for ourselves, as Cheshvan reminds us through the introspective, emotionally-attuned focus of Scorpio, and for each other, as Kislev invites us to do with the passion and joie-de-vivre of Sagittarius. And like the stars against the backdrop of the cold night — each one by itself unable to provide much warmth or much light — together we can create constellations that illuminate the darkness.