Past meets present in our holidays


Once upon a time, was there in fact a cactus that caught fire by itself?

I read that once: a spontaneous flaming shrub gave birth to the Torah tale of the divine voice speaking to Moses from the earthbound bush. Just a natural phenomenon of the desert that inspired a long-lasting legend ... perhaps.

The stained-glass circle above the ark at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence, depicts this image and has always captured my rapt attention, from my Bar Mitzvah ever onward.

Well, I was a December baby, so Hanukkah often brings the birthday menorah out from its hiding place, onto the table or the mantel or windowsill, for one and all to behold on a special candlelit holiday of lights and fights.

The family that struggled to liberate the temple and dedicate the renewal of our sacred space and the prayers of our people, that heroic band of brothers, holds a special spot for me on my calendar. My “Roman” birthday is on the 12th, which likewise has a numerical metaphorical meaning for me, like the iconic 12 tribes of Israel.

I love to give gifts of fine and fancy menorahs to my children and grandchildren, but once I made a mistake: I chose one that was shaped like a grove of trees, so the branches were somewhat uneven. The ritual director at Emanu-El was then “Mr. Adler,” the beloved Edward O., and he objected to my selection.

“They should all be of equal height to be kosher, except for the One,” he told me, and so I use that one merely as an outdoor decoration, not on a windowsill for all to observe and honor.

Somehow, I was always fascinated by the way miracles seem to sum up the seasons that bring beauty, maybe magic, into our daily lives that buoy up our moods and bring us words of cheer and comfort.

Indeed, Hanukkah is not Christmas (although both are about the miracle of light, how it vanishes and then renews itself). And every year on each calendar, I try to listen to my annual inner voice speaking to me about the words that rise from the wicks of the wee slim candles of many colors.

Like Joseph’s coat of many colors, like the Torah tales, like the Sabbath duo, or even the memorial glass miniature lamps to summon back the souls of our dear departed, who visit us on their anniversaries: Nothing disappears quite utterly or silently. There is always the unexpected visit from our spiritual but not silent past – and they return not to haunt us, but to speak to us from beyond.

Like all of our moon months, we can live yesterday, today and tomorrow. And this holiday features the stars of the firmament (one of my favorite words), which whisper to each of us and all of us, with quiet blessings and tidings of resistance and good counsel.

Why, by the way, does the burning bush instruct Moses, while listening, to take off his shoes? In a small Jewish museum in Copenhagen, I found a book in its bookshop that suggested an answer to that command: “Listen” with your feet on the ground. That volume claimed that Jews serve as cobblers to respect the earth itself!

I was intrigued, touched, even inspired, by that rather subtle invitation to connect all the tales in the Torah to whatever themes strike the reader as relevant, useful, adaptable, to whatever chapters in the chronicle of our people, our species, unfold in our hourly history.

So happy holiday. Wiggle your toes freely, look up at the stars in the skies above, stand with and for us Jews everywhere, and admire the trees, their leaves, their imprints on the sidewalk, even their branches, which somehow speak to us.

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Mike Fink, Sketch Book