As the eight days of Chanukah wind down, I am thinking of a question I posed as the festival began – who is the real hero of the story? When I asked this question of a class at the synagogue, I was not surprised at the first response: the oil. We then had a spirited discussion about the other possible heroes and realized we didn’t have a clear-cut conclusion.
Now, a week later, I realize why.
First, let’s talk about the oil. How could the oil be a hero? I admit to frustration for the way this story is told and passed from one generation to the next. With such a powerful story of Jewish survival, resting on guts and smarts and passionate commitment to the Jewish people, the watered-down version of the story that leaves out the essential message is more than a disappointment. It is a huge missed opportunity to reinvigorate pride and commitment to covenantal Judaism and the Jewish people.
Then there is the obvious second choice for the hero: Judah Maccabee and his band of warriors who fought valiantly to defeat an oppressive tyrant who threatened Jewish sovereignty in the land of our ancestors, and crushed Jewish learning and devotion during a time of confusion and change. “The Maccabees”, as they came to be known, saved Torah and the Jewish people. While this heroism inspires our generation, it still does not define us. Jews outside of Israel do not take up arms to defend the right to be Jews. And we pray for a time when Jews in Israel no longer need to do so as well.
There are the mythic heroes, not as often recalled. Hannah and her seven sons, a story of a mother who witnesses the martyrdom of her sons one after the other until her own death, has been an inspiring story for generations of Jews who were disempowered and persecuted, sometimes facing martyrdom themselves. Given the choice between eating pork/worshipping idols or death, Hannah’s family gives their lives rather than giving in. Visiting a typical “Jewish deli/kosher style” restaurant (as is common in Northern New Jersey) that boasts matzah ball soup alongside bacon and eggs, it seems clear that few Jews are motivated by Hannah’s sons’ passion for keeping the commandments as such. Nor are American Jews afraid that we must be prepared to give our lives to save Judaism itself.
Then there is the mythic Judith of the extra-biblical Apocrypha, who single-handedly saves the Jewish community by seducing and then beheading the general Holefernes, whose army is threatening the Jewish community. Judith’s story is great fodder for feminists at this time of year, the counterpoint to Judah Maccabee, and indeed an inspiring heroine. But with the memory of physical threat to Jewish survival fading for younger Jews, Judith’s courageous story (though a bit barbaric) is relegated to an interesting past with little connection to the present.
For American Jews, a new model is needed. Who is our hero?
In North American today, the hero of Chanukah is the person who raises Jewish children in a secular world and teaches them to love and cherish the blessing of being a member of the Jewish people. This hero uses the American blessing of individual empowerment to better the Jewish experience for their family and for all Jews. Embracing both the American and the Jewish civilizations in which they live, this hero teaches their children to recognize and honor the integrity of Jewish distinctiveness. This hero appreciates and honors the value of other religious traditions and people of faith, but cherishes the primacy of their Jewish identity. This hero demonstrates love for Jewish wisdom and ideals, culture and customs, by creatively, lovingly, energetically, and thoughtfully infusing contemporary Judaism into their home.
This is our new Chanukah hero, fighting against the forces of assimilation by embracing and shaping Judaism for themselves and the next generation. As I look around at my community, I see many Chanukah heroes. And that is the miracle of Chanukah.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree (surprise!) about the way Chanukah candles are to be lit. Are we to light one candle the first night and then add one each day, or are we to begin with eight candles, and subtract one each day?
The Shammaite approach is understood by later interpreters (BT Shabbat 21b) this way: Chanukah is a reflection of Sukkot, and by starting with eight candles on the first night, and then subtracting one candle each night, we mirror way in which the bulls were sacrificed during the fall harvest festival. The approach also has the advantage of more accurately reminding us of the legend of that little cruse of oil whose light lingered far longer than expected.
And yet, the approach of the Hillelites was accepted. We began lighting our chanukiyot last Tuesday night with one light, and will conclude this evening with eight. The rationale: ”in matters of holiness, we ascend rather than descending.” Our eight nights of celebration have seen the light grow brighter and brighter, and tonight all of the candles will be lit.
There’s an optimism inherent in the light that grows stronger each day, and on the last few nights of the holiday it is as if the very heavens rise to meet our efforts at adding light to the world. The darkest, longest nights of the year are the mostly moonless nights near the end of the month of Kislev, always near the Winter Solstice. These are the first days of Chanukah. As Chanukah ends, a new moon appears in the western sky at sunset, a little brighter and for a little bit longer on each of the last nights of the holiday. With solstice behind us (at least in those years when Chanukah “comes late”), the nights grow shorter; the waxing moon means they grow brighter, too.
Jews in the northeastern states (where the preponderance of US chanukiyot will be lit) may have to take it on faith this year. But those of us in the rest of the country stand a good chance to see the moon of Kislev in the western sky at lighting time. Let’s take a moment — perhaps just after the candles have guttered — to stand in the light of that waxing moon. As this year’s lighting comes to an end, let’s recommit ourselves to the ascent. May we bring light.
Hanukkah has been for as long as I can remember one of my favorite Jewish holidays. Throughout my life different aspects of the holiday celebration stood out to me. When I was a child I loved playing dreidel and getting Chanukah gelt (tin foil wrapped chocolate coins) and singing Chanukah songs with my family. As time went on I was mesmerized by the miraculous story of the oil that lasted eight nights instead of only one and as a teenager I thought it was so cool that there was a holiday that celebrated Jewish military might and victory as a bright light on a rather depressing and tragic timeline of Jewish history. During the past few years I have begun to appreciate Chanukah for yet another element that I believe plays a crucial role in today’s society.
Oxford University Press published earlier this year a remarkable book authored by Dr. Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame entitled Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. The book is the result of an in-depth study done of 230 emerging adults (ages 18-23) from a broad array of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The research gives us a glimpse into the contemporary value system that young adults are embracing and calling their own. It is one marked by incredible display of moral individualism and an equally serious inclination towards moral relativism. One quote from an interview recorded in the book succinctly demonstrates this phenomenon. The interviewee is discussing the morality of slavery and comments:
“Who am I judge? I mean back then, if that’s what you believed [that slavery is acceptable] and that’s what happened, you know that’s your right, if you thought it was right at the time. I wasn’t alive then, so I can’t really pas judgment on it, though in today’s world I would think it’d be utterly ridiculous, like I wouldn’t agree with it. But, like I said, it’s society, it changes.”
- Lost in Transition, pp. 27-28
It is within this cultural milieu that Chanukah enters and makes a remarkable statement: There are things in life that are so important that you have to be willing to stake your life on them. The first step is to discover what are those things in your life that are inviolable. Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil and it is a time for family gathering and dreidel games and chocolate gelt but even more than all that it is an annual reminder to first discover and then fortify the things we hold so truly dear and precious, that define us as who we are down to the very deepest level of our being.
Dr. Jon D. Levenson of Harvard Divinity School recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal which poignantly made this point. He wrote the following:
“But as the story of the martyrs shows, the victory was also associated with the heroic dedication of the Jewish traditionalists of the time to their God and his Torah. If Hanukkah celebrates freedom, it is a freedom to be bound to something higher than freedom itself.”
We can and must celebrate our generation’s openness to new ideas and genuine respect for the different viewpoints and perspectives that our society, in the words of Professor Diana L. Eck, acting like an exquisite jazz composition brings forward and yet we also must affirm our core identities and be able to civilly assert our unique perspectives into the public square. We can draw on the narrative of Chanukah to strengthen us in this endeavor and by so doing be able to be both compassionate listeners and appreciators of the perspectives of others and articulate and passionate advocates for our own unique values, viewpoints and perspectives.
But it wasn’t the song or their new video that drew me in, but their fundraising efforts on behalf of the Gift of Life Foundation through the website www.MakeSomeMiracles.com.
The Maccabeats are inviting donations of ten thousand dollars a day for each day of Chanukah in the hope of securing much needed funds for Gift of Life, a bone marrow registry organization.
With a personal video narrated by Mayim Bialik and each of the members of the Maccabeats, their call is honest and sincere. As of this writing they have already raised $22,000!
I clicked on the donation button. Suddenly, I was involved in making a miracle for Chanukah — not just receiving an ancient one. The miracle that the Maccabeats are giving light to is a miracle that keeps on giving life and hope to people with cancer beyond this holiday season.
So can we make some miracles?
Many interpretations suggest that the miracle of Chanukah was that we didn’t give up even when we had no chance of winning against the Greek/Syrians. In spite of the powerful forces that encourage our continued assimilation or disappearance we have survived and adapted to the modern world in which we live in as Jews. We live precariously on the edge while we persevere through a revolving door of constant change. The miracle of the Maccabeats is the miracle of our people.
We have come a long way from the Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song from “Saturday Night Live” in 1994 which centered on the theme of Jewish children feeling alienated during the Christmas season, and Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities as a way of sympathizing with their situation.
With the Maccabeats, the traditional and the contemporary merge to create a blend of Judaism and Jewish music that continues to define our communal confidence with viral velocity.
We revel in religious freedom in America. A Yeshiva University a cappella group has reached beyond their ivory tower borders to educate and entertain. We all received the instant messaging. Again, history has shown us, that we are the miracle of Chanukah!
Yes, we can make modern miracles. Click and contribute to a new miracle this Chanukah 5772!
“What is Hanukah?” the Talmud asks and typically each year at this time we are reminded by a variety of writers what the “true” meaning of Hanukah is. From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to numerous websites, scholars, rabbis, educators, and the “man (sic) on the street” offer their take on the nature of Hanukah. To be clear, many of these pieces are quite engaging and informative and this year I have certainly profited from their insights.
It is in this vein, I want to share an approach of Rabbi Isaac Hutner obm. In one of his teachings R. Hutner suggests that the lasting impact of Greece on Israel was the development of machloket-differences of opinion as to the practice of Torah. The Greeks, through their decrees, caused Torah to be forgotten and it was this forgetting that created differences of opinions as to what the correct practice was and should be. It was the war with the Greeks and their defeat at the time of Hanukah that created the “war over Torah”, the sometimes acrimonious debates in which rabbis and sages engage in order to recover what was lost during the persecutions by the Greeks . The legacy of Greece is the legacy of the darkness caused by the accurate tradition of Torah being lost. However, this legacy of darkness and forgetting is compensated by the recovery project of the sages, the “war over Torah” which increased the knowledge of Torah itself. Debate led to new understandings and insights. Even the rejected positions had to be justified and explained. The legacy of Hanukah is the increased light of knowledge of Torah overcoming the darkness of the forgotten Torah. It was the forgetting caused by the Greeks that allowed Torah to expand exponentially in its scope and knowledge.
This rather inadequate summary of my reading of R. Hutner’s teaching I hope will lead the reader to explore it in depth in the original. To be sure not all agree with R Hutner’s understanding of the origin of machloket- differences of opinion. In the context of his teaching I do want to reflect on “war over Torah”. While the tradition itself hopes and expects that the “enemies” in this battle, who are after all sages, will become “lovers” in the end, there is a danger in intellectual/religious battle that one go overboard and flex one’s muscles in a way that ventures far beyond a search for truth to a destruction of civility. There are examples of this in the Talmud. We certainly see this problem pervading our own political and religious discourse. Perhaps even in this pursuit of truth we may have to stop sometimes and not use it as a license for slamming those with whom we may have even profound disagreement.
However R. Hutner asserts something that may appear at first as counterintuitive. True love he says only can emerge from those with whom you have disagreement. Becoming “lovers” is only possible because you had profound differences and were able to engage them in a way that brought you closer in the end. Becoming closer does not mean reaching full agreement, but it does mean having a deep attachment to your ideological opponent. What might our discourse look like if we retained this as a goal even while maintaining our deep convictions and commitment to pursuing the truth as we conceive it?
Is this true of our most intimate relationships as well? Might it be that learning how to truly argue without achieving full agreement is what can bring lovers the closest? The answer to that I leave to you, in the meantime Happy Hanukah.
Last year, just before Chanukah, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman came to me for some assistance. Her four-year-old daughter had come home from school and asked her to explain the meaning of Chanukah. Although the reporter had grown up in New York City and had many Jewish friends, she didn’t feel equipped to adequately answer the question. She also realized that if she felt this way, there certainly must be others with a similar lack of “Chanukah knowledge.” That’s where I came in; the reporter asked me to write a piece that would help well-meaning, culturally curious parents answer their children’s questions. Here’s what I wrote:
My 6-year-old daughter, Noa, was particularly thrilled by Chanukah last year. She became more excited each night, as the number of candles we lit increased. The last night was enthralling, as she set each candle in the menorah that stood next to the window in our living room.
Chanukah (meaning dedication) comes at the darkest point of the year, waking us from our apathy and reminding us to be in awe of all of the small and large wonders in our lives. In the darkest of days, we have the amazing capacity to bring light — to bring goodness and peace — to those we encounter.
We light a menorah in our window for eight nights, adding one candle each night so that by the final night we have all eight candles and the helper candle, used to light the others (called the shamash), sparkling through the glass. By lighting the candles in the window, we don’t merely retain our light — rather, we shine it out onto the world.
But why the eight nights and eight candles? The story of Chanukah is one to which we can all relate.
It is the story of the small and righteous winning out over the large oppressive forces in the world. In 165 B.C.E., after discrimination, forced assimilation and violence, a small group of Jewish fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, won religious freedom from the large Hellenistic Assyrian army, led by the King Antiochus.
The rabbis responsible for writing the Talmud centuries later, who were living in a time when a military solution to oppression was not feasible, were uncomfortable simply celebrating a military victory, and therefore emphasized a more spiritual dimension with the legend of the oil. We are told that after the war, when the Maccabees went to rededicate our temple, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Yet, amazingly, this small cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for our people to acquire more oil. Similar to Judah Maccabee’s tiny army, the small amount of oil would not dissipate.
Today, we eat special fried foods that symbolize the miracle of the oil — specifically potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts. We also play a game called dreidel. Each side of this unique top is engraved with a letter symbolizing the line “A great miracle happened there.”
Traditionally, teachers were paid during Chanukah in gelt (coins), and therefore it also has become customary for children (and adults!) to enjoy chocolate Chanukah gelt.
Whatever story we choose to tell our children — whether it is one of victory over oppression or of miraculous oil — the essential message is the same. Sometimes life is rough. Sometimes people are mean, hurting us and getting us down. Yet, in the end, goodness will win out.
We all have a powerful inner light — represented by the candles of the menorah. It is our job — even in the darkest of days — to remain dedicated to allowing our light to shine bright, illuminating our world and bringing us to a better tomorrow.
Hanukkah (the first candle is lit on the evening of Dec. 20, 2011) is the Jewish holiday which celebrates miracles. One custom at our home is that on each night of Hanukkah we light candles, say blessings, and then, before any gifts are exchanged or dreidels spun, each member of the family shares a miracle story. What is a miracle? A miracle is better defined as “an event whose cause is inexplicable by the laws of nature or science, and is therefore attributed to the Divine.”
Miracles sound different to the very young than they do to adults, and, frankly a miracle is in the eye of the beholder. They are, most often very personal, and from any other person’s perspective, could just as easily be attributed to good luck. I remember twenty years ago, during my interview for Rabbinical school, I was asked the question, “Do you believe in miracles?”
“Was the Red Sea’s parting a miracle?”
“I don’t believe I can really know which event is or isn’t a miracle,” I answered, “For me, it’s enough to know that they happen.”
I’ve come to this comfortable place about miracles. If someone has a story to share that he or she considers miraculous, I ask myself the question, “Is there any harm in me accepting this as miraculous? What if I’m wrong?” Truth is, I’m wrong about so much about ‘factual life’ that the harm in being wrong once more is not a dangerous risk. Consider the following story a former congregant shared with me about her mother who stayed home with her grandson so that mom could return to work:
Bubbe Shirley spent (‘Bubby’ is a Yiddish term of endearment for grandmother) every day with Benjamin, and they loved each other very much. It was Bubby Shirley that took little Benny to and from pre-school, who took him to the store, sang songs with him, and best of all walked along the beach picking up shells with Benny. It was terrifying to the whole family when Bubby Shirley discovered that she had stage IV breast cancer, that the tumors had metastasized, and that her lungs and liver were compromised. The clock was ticking. There was no sense in operating, but there was time for a family trip. Bubby Shirley took her daughter and grandson to Florida, where on another walk along the beach she and Benny found their biggest shell ever, a conch shell in which one can hear the sound of the ocean or blow into it and make a deep trumpet sound.
Soon after Bubby Shirley died. Her daughter was beside herself, not just for her own loss, but her son’s.
On the first day of kindergarden Benny’s mother was in the kitchen crying, her mother should have been here for this. She pulled herself together, for Benny, and went to his room to leave. Benny sat on his made bed with his Barney backpack on, and the conche shell to his ear like a telephone.
“OK, Benny, it’s time to go.”
“Shhh,” he said, “It’s Bubby Shirley.”
Benny’s mother thought that maybe he was worried about taking such a big step without his grandmother. Perhaps she could find out what specifically he was worried about.
“What are you telling her,” she asked. “I’m not saying anything. She’s talking to me.”
“What is she saying?”
“She said that she’s fine and that you will be too,” and with that he hung up the shell and was ready to go.
Is there a great risk in believing that a connection between heaven and earth was being made? My opinion is ‘no’. I prefer to suspend judgement. The troubling things in life have a way of seeming bigger than they really are, why not allow the miraculous a chance as well.
Hag Urim Sameach (Happy Holiday of Lights). May this season fill you and yours with the sense of the closeness of the miraculous.
P.S. Inspire others. Post a miracle story.