Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.
It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling. We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once! Continue reading
I have always loved telling the Chanukah story because it is so much about the strength of the Jewish people. My own Jewish identity is nourished by powerful pride in our improbable survival for all these many centuries of challenges. Chanukah is an opportunity to celebrate the courage, smarts and drive of the Jewish people. Not only did our ancestors find a way to prevail during the Syrian Green conflict of the second century BCE, but we have also been inspired by their story at many subsequent crucially challenging moments.
How does that story relate to us today? In our increasingly individualized society, how many of us have the kind of commitment to any cause that we would risk our lives for it? How much are we willing to fight for what we value? Do we value our people enough to be courageous and selfless for the preservation of Jewish civilization? What would that courage and devotion look like?
Last week was a significant anniversary on the Jewish calendar. December 6 was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the huge march on Washington to Free Soviet Jewry. 250,000 participants came from all over the country, even from other countries. Their presence, coinciding with the White House meeting of President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev caught the attention of the American president. He told his guest that he could not ignore these constituents. American aid to the Soviet Union would depend on freeing Soviet Jews. Slowly but surely the doors opened and our brothers and sisters were permitted to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain. We did it – courage, drive, devotion, sacrifice and intelligence won again.
It can be easier to find the resolve to respond in a crisis. But what about the in-between times? In many ways our people has thrived and contributed to the world out of day-to-day devotion to our shared destiny. We are in it for the long haul. Our covenant with God has inspired us, our belonging to the Jewish people has grounded us; we have lived for the “us.”
American culture presents a renewed challenge to Jewish peoplehood. This calls for transformed commitment to the “us,” to the ideals of the Jewish people. It’s worth fighting for our people – it is really not so selfless – after all, we are the beneficiaries of this great Jewish civilization.
Chanukah celebrates the victory for religious freedom that the Maccabees won for us. In every age we have new opportunities to renew that victory, as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the National Council on Soviet Jewry did in 1987. Every year Chanukah gives us an opportunity to celebrate pride in being Jews. We are the newest Maccabees, fighting for “us.”
Victory will be seen by the gifting of our talents, time and resources to make our Jewish organizations as engaging and soulful as the next generation needs them to be. Chanukah means “dedication.” Renewed dedication to the Jewish people’s well-being would be a triumph worthy of the celebration of light that we enjoy.
Best wishes for a joyous Chanukah, filled with light, inspired by courage and devotion.
“Even if the messiah tarries, nonetheless, I believe and wait for him, but peace with Iran? Impossible.” When I asked a group of twenty well educated religious Jewish adults the question, “Can you imagine Iran and Israel making peace,” their unanimous answer was, “No.” Can you imagine peace in the Middle East in your lifetime? Call me crazy, but I can. What can I say, I’m a rabbi, I’m all about faith. I asked the group about Iran because they are largely seen as the most power negative actor in the region (by no means the only one, just the most troublesome). What to do about Iran? Like our congress, I have no idea, still, I believe we will eventually find peace.
Recently, the US Congress considered an increased oil embargo of Iranian oil, to teach them a lesson, to isolate them even further. Even as the Senate voted 100 to 0 to freeze the assets of Iranian Central Bank, they decided against an oil embargo against them. Why? Because even if the intension was to hurt Tehran, the result could very well be a rise in oil prices which actually helps Iranians instead. How to navigate around such a dangerous, crazy, and powerful foe? Again, I have no idea.
So why be hopeful? Again, I am a rabbi, I have a strong proclivity toward faith in a better future. But beyond that, there is a little known secret that keeps me going – pistachios. Israel and Iran have a long history together. I live in Los Angeles, with a large and proud Farsi community. The Tehrangelinos that I know, both Jewish and non-Jewish, religiously observant and not, all take great pride in the the Purim story. The story of Esther and Mordechai draws parallels, if not direct connection to, King Cyrus allowing the Jews back to Israel, and to rebuild the Temple. There is a connection. In fact, there is a tradition that there is a tunnel from Hamedan, Iran, the site of the Persian claimed
tomb of Esther and Mordechai, all the way to Israel (some claim their burial site to be in a forrest near Safed, Israel). Before the Revolution, and into the early 1980’s most of Iran’s weapons were American sold via the Israelis. See, we can play nice together (see Iran-Contra). Have the Israelis broken ties with Iran? They’d have to be nuts, and they are, for pistachios (In fact, there is really fun rumor that the payment for some of the arms were transfered via cheap pistachios). According to an LA Times article, Israel has the largest per-capita pistachio consumption rate in the world. And their greatest supplier? Via third parties, Iran.
Do I really think that Middle Eastern Peace can be settled over nuts? Not really. But here is what I take from the lesson: Be it oil, or pistachios, or major arms deals, or even the even more potent concept so desperately sought by Iran’s majority of young people, freedom – no amount of Government intervention can shut down the back doors to what what people really want. It can take time, it can be difficult, but if it’s not impossible, well, that makes it possible. My concern is that we suffer from a lack of hope. Hope in a human future which is greater than today is perhaps the greatest by-product of a religious outlook on life.
The inability for religiously minded people to believe that there can be peace in the Middle East is to fly in the face of the great Prophets of Israel, and even for the non-religious, it is a stance so defeatist that it is no wonder there is such apathy around the cause of peace. Religious or not, faithful or pragmatic, there can be no progress without the idea of hope. That idea does not reside only with the Iranians, or the Israelis, or the Senate, or any single person. Hope is of the mind and of the soul. I am not so foolish as to imagine that just believing will make peace come (I’ve clicked the heels of my ruby slippers and nothing, so, It’s not like that route hasn’t been tried). I understand it takes work. My contention is with a mindset that says “we have to accept things the way they are.” A lack of hope is a poison.
To my mind, it helps accounts for the epidemic of depression and loneliness that we have become accustomed to in the fast paced age of the 21st century. Regardless of one’s religion, regardless or one’s religious observance of his or her religion, regardless if one even has a religion or not, I believe that hope, a move from darkness to light, is always possible. Ultimately speaking, faith and hope are the enduring purposes of Hanukkah, without a little bit of light, on future that we can only just imagine, we will sink into darkness.
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.