I got a press call today. I suspect that many rabbis and other clergy members across the country got the same call. The newspaper reporter on the other end of the line did her job by dutifully asking the question, "Rabbi, what are you going to say to your congregation about today's events?"
How should I answer? What words of wisdom can possibly be offered about a man who would enter a kindergarten classroom and murder little children? Is there a way to make any sense of it at all?
How I will cling to my children tonight! How I will cry out in pain for those lost little ones in Connecticut and for their families!
To make matters worse, tonight is the seventh night of Chanukah. We are near the climax of our holiday that celebrates increasing the light. Today's events are all darkness—a pit of swirling, unending darkness.
Our tradition tells us that we are obliged to defy darkness. It is our duty not to give in to despair, but to insist that we are sustained by hope. We must rail against the fatalism that says that there is nothing we can do. We must dedicate ourselves to declaring that the world can be—must be—better.
"Never despair! Never! It is forbidden to give up hope!"
—Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Likutei Moharan II:78
The reporter on the other end of the phone line took down my words as best she could. Tomorrow, maybe, they will be in the paper. And the day after that they will be in the recycling bin. But something from this experience—by God—has got to last longer than that.
Today is not the day, but tomorrow surely will be, to say that there are things that we can do—must do—to stop events like this from happening again. Our governments, state and federal, can take action. Our communities can take action. Our schools and families can take action. Each one of us as individuals can do something. We have an obligation to rail against the darkness, to increase the light where there is despair.
My Chanukah plea to you is this: Be part of the light. Call your Congressmen and Senators on Monday morning and tell them how you feel about gun control. Show up at the next school board meeting and make your voice heard about emergency preparedness. Get in touch with your local police department and talk with them about how to prevent violence in your community. Support organizations that advocate effective treatment for mental illness and provide support for the families of people who are mentally ill.
Do something. That has always been the Jewish response to despair. Confront the darkness.
"You're gonna have to serve somebody,
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody."
On the day I was ordained by my rabbinic school, one of my teachers left me a note congratulating me on my new role in life, "To serve the servants of the Most High." The phrase has stayed with me as a sacred intention for my work. To be a rabbi is to be a servant.
There is a nice metaphor for the work of a rabbi right there in the middle of a Chanukah menorah. The central candle, the one that is used to light the others, is called the shamash.
It is a Hebrew word that means, "servant."
According to rabbinic tradition, the eight lower lights of the Chanukah menorah are holy. They may only be used for gazing upon them in remembrance of the miracle of Chanukah. The traditional formula recited after the candle lighting says, "We have no right to use them apart from looking at them."
The original purpose of the shamash
was not to light the other candles. Rather, the shamash
provides the ordinary light that can be used for ordinary purposes. When people read a book or walk across an otherwise darkened room by the light of the Chanukah menorah, we say that they are using the light of the shamash
. The only holiness that belongs to the shamash
comes from the way it allows the other candles to be holy.
Likewise, the holiness of a rabbi is only in his or her being useful for drawing out the holiness of others. A rabbi is a servant, not a holy figure to be venerated above others. Without a Jewish community to reflect the light of Torah, a rabbi would be just an ordinary candle.
People often look at rabbis as the people in the community who are supposed to be "in charge." After all, there they are in the most visible role, right in the middle of everything. But rabbis are just like that shamash
—center-stage and high on a platform, but only as a servant to those who stand on either side. The men, women and children who come to learn, to pray, and to make a difference in the community are the real life of the congregation. They are the holy ones. The rabbi is just the conduit, the organizer, the vehicle.
Joseph, in this week's Torah portion (Miketz
), is called upon to interpret two dreams for Pharaoh. Pharaoh says to him, "I have heard it said that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning." Joseph, however, understands the truth of his role. He says, "Not I! It is God who will see to Pharaoh’s welfare" (Genesis 41:15-16).
This is what rabbis do. Like Joseph, and like that tall candle in the middle, rabbis are best able to do their job by recognizing that it's not all about them. It's about the community; it's about the Torah; it's about God. It is about the flame the rabbi carries and those to whom the rabbi carries it.Other Posts on This Topic:The Blind and the LightTen Thoughts About Being a Congregational RabbiMiketz: Deception
Pictured here are the latkes I made last night for my family. I find—somewhat absurdly—that I have strong opinions when it comes to latkes. Here are the latke principles for which I stand:
1) There is a popular translation of the Yiddish song, "Oy Chanukah," that refers to "Crispy little latkes, tasty and thin." This, I say, is an affront to what latkes are meant to be. Once you have eaten a thick and hearty potato latke, you should know that you have eaten something. The sweet and salty flavor should linger in your mouth while the substance of the pancake amply fills your belly. To call a latke "little," or, even worse, "thin," is to deny the essence of what latkes are all about. "Crispy" on the outside is fine, as long as it is balanced by "plump" or "juicy" on the inside.
2) In the great contest that pits applesauce versus sour cream, I proudly affirm that they are both winners. The only thing that could be wrong about either topping would be to put on so much that you cannot taste the latke itself. A latke that is merely a substrate for sweet applesauce or tangy sour cream is not worth eating. The latke must have flavor that you would savor without any topping at all. The topping is just a bonus.
3) I recently discovered a third excellent topping for latkes. (I know. I am breaking with tradition on this one. Call me a heretic.) When you mix together a cup of greek yogurt, a pair of crushed garlic cloves, and a quarter teaspoon of salt, you get this fabulous sauce that is just crying out to be spread on top of fried potatoes and onions. Try it. It will elevate your latke experience.
4) Remember that the latke became a staple food of Chanukah for one reason only—the oil. Eating a latke should vaguely remind you of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days when it was supposed to burn for only one. (If the latke gives you heartburn, so much the better for remembering the burning lights of the ancient Temple Menorah). To create a latke-thing that is baked in an oven, or otherwise deprived of oil, is a sin against the memory of the Maccabees. Look, folks, Chanukah is only for eight days. You can lower your HDLs and LDLs in January.
5) I've heard about Latke-Hamantaschen debates. Without casting any aspersions against the fine poppy-filled pastry of Purim, let me just say this: It's no contest. Eating a good latke is like receiving a glimpse of heaven. On Purim, I prefer the Slivovitz
6) Texture makes a latke as much as flavor. A latke must not be made with potatoes that have all been irreparably reduced to mush. There needs to be bits of shredded (not grated) potato in the latke to give it the right feeling in your mouth. Run away from any potato ingredient that contains the words "reconstituted" or "powdered." Yuck.
7) Latkes are not
deep fried. Deep frying is a technique for cooking food at high temperatures very quickly. If you do that to a latke, you will end up with something that is a lifeless, burnt, crumbly mess. Latkes are shallow
fried. They cook slowly at lower temperatures while sitting in a puddle of oil. They are golden brown, savory and sweet. If you think you don't like latkes, it is because you've been eating the charred remains of perfectly good potatoes and onions.
8) Yes, I know about cheese latkes. I've read that they actually are the "original" latke. My wife makes incredible cheese latkes that are basically ricotta cheese fried in butter with a dollop of homemade rose hip jam on top. There is no part of the previous sentence that I do not like.
9) Of course, latkes are fattening. If you do not put on a few extra pounds during Chanukah, you are not doing it right. Just don't eat from the last day of Chanukah until Presidents Day and you'll be fine.
10) Any advice on what to do with leftover latkes is entirely missing the point.
Other Posts on This Topic:Chanukah ChaikuA Day of Chanukah
Saturday, 6:10 p.m.
Chanukah begins for my family. We visit my parents' home in Palm Beach Gardens so the kids can celebrate the holiday with their grandparents. We light the menorah for the first time this year on their kitchen table and I am proud—oh, so proud—of my kids who recite the blessings beautifully, say "thank you" after receiving each gift, and give each grandparent a big hug with lots of kisses. We eat dinner, linger over good conversation, and drive home. It is a very successful beginning to the holiday. I am wondering if the third helping of latkes smothered with sour cream was a mistake. Probably.
| |Sunday, 7:00 a.m.
I wake up to find that my younger daughter is excited. Up to this point, I had not remembered just how excited she gets over Chanukah. She is bouncing on our bed, asking questions about plans for the day, anticipating presents, and contemplating craft projects. I am still in the bed, barely awake, wondering if I can make it to the shower. Success. After a quick breakfast, we round up the kids into my car to drive to Religious School. On the way, we stop at Dunkin' Donuts where I purchase a dozen jelly doughnuts from the drive-through. These will be the sufganiyot
I will offer to the students in my Confirmation Class. Not for the last time, I wonder why Dunkin' Donuts does not market its jelly doughnuts as an exceptional Chanukah treat. Do they even know...?Sunday, 9:30 a.m.
We have a family education event this morning for the sixth and seventh grades and there is a huge turn-out. Our theme for today is "Lashon HaRa
," the prohibition in Jewish law against speaking ill of another person. There are fifty or so students and parents gathered in the Temple's social hall for the occasion. I start the program by acting out a famous chassidic story about a woman who goes to a rabbi seeking forgiveness for the sin of gossiping. The rabbi instructs her to tear open a feather pillow in the town market and release all the feathers. The woman is confused by the instructions, but does as the rabbi tells her. When she later returns to the rabbi to receive her forgiveness, he tells her that she must first go back to the market and collect all the feathers. The woman protests that it is impossible, but the rabbi teaches her that lashon hara
is considered such a serious sin because, like the feathers from that pillow, it is impossible ever to take back words once they have been released to the winds. Good story. I then take the parents into the sanctuary while the cantor does a crafts project with the kids about lashon hara
(with feathers) in the social hall. My lesson with the parents focusses on the positive character traits we want to teach our children and how to connect them to Jewish ethical teachings. Sunday, 10:30 a.m.
I start class with my eleven Confirmation students. The sufganiyot
are a big hit. (No surprise there). I love teaching this class. The students are a diverse group, including loud kids and quiet kids, serious kids and fun-loving kids. However, they are all bright, kind, thoughtful and committed to being Jews. (That's not always a given in a community where there are only a handful of Jews in each public school grade.) Today, the lesson is on cheating, which I know will be a hot-button issue for a lot of these students. I'm not surprised that they are all-too-willing to share stories about cheating in their schools. Some even admit to having cheated themselves. (No names. What is said in the Confirmation class, stays in the Confirmation class.) We talk about the harm that cheating does to other students, to teachers, to schools, and, most of all, to the cheating students themselves. We talk about Jewish values of trust, truthfulness and fairness. We talk about the prohibition in Jewish law against deceiving others. They get it. There is still powdered sugar on their beautiful faces.Sunday, 11:30 a.m.
During the service at the end of Religious School, I talk about Chanukah as a holiday that recalls miracles. I point out that the miracle of Chanukah—a story about a one-day supply of oil that lasted for eight days—does not seem like such a big deal. However, I tell them that many of life's miracles are easily overlooked. I ask the students to give me some examples. One child says that her brother just passed an exam to get into the Air Force Academy, and that is like a miracle for him. Another child says that the way her big sister loves her is the biggest miracle in her life. One child says that our congregation itself is a miracle. Don't I have a great job?Sunday, 2:00 p.m.
Today we are showing one of the six films in this year's Treasure Coast Jewish Film Festival
. Today's movie is Reuniting the Rubins
, a comedy about a grandmother who manipulates her son into reuniting his children for a Passover seder. With my rabbinic colleagues from the other two Jewish congregations on the Treasure Coast, we introduce the film with our usual ritual of lighting a candle and reciting the blessing for the study of Torah (yes, there is Torah in watching contemporary Jewish films, if you look for it). I find the movie to be a bit silly and sentimental (also, the sound system doesn't work as well as it should). However, I see that The Rubins
connects well with the 90 or so people who have come to see it. During the discussion that follows the film, people observe themes that are familiar to them—the difficulty of keeping families together in an age of geographic dispersion, Jewish mourning customs that seem anachronistic and moving at the same time, a Jewish community that is so diverse that it can be difficult to get Jews to agree on anything. I learn that there is meaning for people in a place where I mostly saw triviality. Sunday 5:45 p.m.
I come home tired from a long day of work. (I've been invited to two public menorah lightings this evening, but I'm not going to make it to either of them. It's too late and I'm too exhausted.) Yet, there is more work to be done. My two children are just as excited about Chanukah as they were this morning and they want more latkes
. My wife starts a batch of potato latkes and I am enlisted to make the cheese latkes. The kids help and it is a huge production that takes over the kitchen and spreads into the living room. We set up the menorahs (our family lights several on each night of the holiday). We make the blessings, sing the songs, devour the meal, exchange gifts, sing some more, and frighten the dog with our clapping, hollering, and merrymaking. At one point, as the four of us are bound in a big family hug, with our four noggins bumping against each other, I am speechless with joy. My wife catches my eyes with hers and says one word: "This
I know exactly what "This" means. "This moment," she is saying silently, "is why we married each other seventeen years ago. This experience is what makes up for all the tough times, all the difficulties of raising children, all the hardships of a demanding job, all the conflicts that need to be resolved, and all the problems that just have to wait. This wonderful, blessed moment is what keeps us going, keeps us loving life and each other, keeps the fire in our souls burning from every yesterday until every tomorrow." I just gaze into her face and whisper back the single word in complete agreement: "This."
Chanukah is a minor holiday of little miracles. It is eight days of trying to notice the extraordinary that is concealed in the garments of the ordinary. A day's worth of oil burned for eight days? Who even notices a miracle like that? I'll tell you who. It is the same people who delight in hearing the squeals of an eight-year-old girl, the people who ponder how to raise a child to take pleasure in doing what is right, the people who understand that being part of a caring community is itself a miracle. It is people who deeply know the good that has been given to them just through the gesture of a hug, a glance, a single word.
Happy Chanukah.Other Posts on This Topic:Ten Thoughts About Being a Congregational RabbiThe Audacity of the Miracle
Photo: Brett Z. Feldman
Chanukah is the only holiday celebrated by the ancient rabbis to remember an event that occurred after the biblical period. The miracle of Chanukah, then, is the last miracle that we commemorate.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger taught in his classic collection, Sefat Emet
, that the memory of all miracles tends to fade in time, so, throughout the biblical period, God would keep performing new miracles when the light of the previous miracle had faded. In this way, Israel always would keep the memory of God and draw strength from it. However, since the time of the Maccabees, the miracle of Chanukah has been the only miracle to sustain us and to keep God's memory alive in us.
He says, "Chanukah is the last miracle that was performed for us. Therefore, we have to find special strength in it" (pp. 1:208-209). Chanukah, he says, is uniquely able to keep burning within us because "the light of the Chanukah miracle has the power to keep renewing itself until the final redemption comes." This is why, he says, the holiday is called "Chanukah," meaning, "rededication"—this holiday has the ability to rededicate and renew itself through the ages and never fade.
When we consider that the minor holiday of Chanukah is, indeed, one of the two most celebrated Jewish holidays by Jews in North America (along with Passover), it does seem that this little flickering flame of a holiday does have a remarkable power to keep itself going.
We are on the eve now of the last night of Chanukah, the final commemoration this year of the final miracle that renews itself and must sustain until the world's redemption. Therefore, it is a fitting day to ask this: How do you keep the light of spirituality burning in your life? How do you keep the memory of the miracles you have experienced fresh in your mind? How do you sustain a sense of wonder for the world around you?
This is the great question at the center of all of the world's religious and spiritual traditions. We are not just flesh and blood. We are radiant beings of light created to fulfill a divine purpose, yet we keep forgetting this about ourselves. How do we keep ourselves from forgetting?
Judaism's answer takes the form of a hundred small acts of remembrance to be repeated every day. Every time we express gratitude for the food we have to eat, every time we greet a new day as a magical gift that has been given to us without our asking, every time we help a person in need, every time we struggle to find meaning in our lives, and every time we open our hearts in prayer, we help ourselves to keep the fire within us kindled and to keep ourselves from forgetting who we really are.
Tonight, the Chanukah lights will burn their brightest and then sputter out until next year. However, those lights are a symbol of the light that we can renew daily within ourselves by the way that we choose to live our lives. May this year's Chanukah lights inspire you to rededicate yourself to a year of remembering.
Happy Chanukah!Other posts on this topic:Havdalah
The Talmud says that there once was a dispute between the two major rabbinic schools about the way that the Chanukah menorah should be lit. The students of Shammai claimed that one should light eight lights on the first night of Chanukah and reduce the number of lights by one each night. The followers of Hillel said the opposite—on the first night one light should be kindled and one light should be added each night (B. Shabbat 21b).
We know from the way we light the menorah today that the House of Hillel won this argument. But why? On a purely historical level, the House of Shammai's system seems to make more sense. When the Maccabees lit the Temple Menorah with the one remaining cruse of oil, it must have burned brightest on the first day and gradually faded as the miracle progressed from day to day. On the eighth and final day, we might imagine that the Menorah flame was low, but strong enough to continue until more oil became available. The House of Shammai wanted to light their Chanukah lights to reflect that fading.
The House of Hillel had a different perspective. Lighting the Chanukah lights, to them, was not just a representation of the literal burning of the Temple Menorah when the Maccabees rededicated it. It is meant to represent something deeper, something more spiritual. What does the increasing number of candles on our menorahs represent?
I asked this question a few years ago of a group of students in a b'nei mitzvah preparation class. I will never forget how startled I was when a ten-year-old boy gave this precocious answer: "The lights of the menorah represent the increasing audacity of the miracle." I was floored.
Yes. On the second day after the Temple Menorah was lit, there would have been some surprise and some gratitude that the meager amount of oil was still burning. By the fourth day, the surprise may have deepened into a quiet smiling of the soul. Something special was happening. By the seventh day (that's the day that starts this evening at sunset), there would have been no way to ignore the fact that there was a true miracle. Even if the light had grown more feeble with time, the audacity of the miracle had grown to proportions that could not be denied. Those seven bright, burning lights on our menorahs tonight represent that growing audacity.
And so it is in our lives, if we allow our perception of miracles to burn brightly within us.
For me, there is no greater miracle in my life than my daughters. On the day that each of them was born, I held them in my arms and knew that I had been touched by God. Every day since, the miracle has grown. They have progressed, step by step, into walking, talking, thinking, feeling, caring and creating people. My oldest now is on the doorstep of remarkable and beautiful womanhood.
The seventh night of Chanukah has a special meaning in some Northern African Jewish communities. It is called Chag HaBanot
, "The Festival of the Daughters." (I learned this today from the blog of my dear friend Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi
). What could be more appropriate for recognizing the audacity of the miracle tonight than to honor the wonder that parents are privileged to witness in the growth of their children?
The Chanukah lights are not just a reminder of events that happened to other people, long ago. They are a reminder of the blossoming miracles that we experience in our own lives. Tonight is the seventh night. This year's Chanukah cycle almost has reached its climax. Look into those lights and recognize the overflowing growth of the miraculous all around you.
Happy Chanukah!Other posts on this topic:The Blind and the LightWhat is Chanukah?The Miracle of the First Day of ChanukahSeason of Miracles, Season of Hope
It has become a cultural joke among North American Jews that today is a day for going to the movies and a Chinese restaurant. After all, they seem to be the only things that are open.
I have no problem with that and I might partake myself. (I recommend the new Muppet Movie. The eggplant with garlic sauce at the Chinese place in Old Palm City is quite good.)
But I also want to suggest a different take on December 25th. Think of it this way: There is nothing to buy. Your out-of-the-house wokplace is closed. The streets are quiet. Nobody expects you to do much. The kids are home. Chances are that it's a beautiful day. This is your once-a-year chance to turn off the hustle and bustle of our non-stop, busy, wired and wireless, 24/7 society.
I'm turning my computer off now. You can do the same. I think I'll go play with my kids, go for a walk, read a book, sip some wine, and just have myself a lovely little day.
Happy sixth night of Chanukah. Other posts on this topic:
How Does a Joyful Jew Respond to "Merry Christmas"?
It once happened that I was walking outside in the darkness of night when I saw a blind man who was walking down the street with a torch in hand. I said to him, “My son, why do you need to have this torch?” He said to me, “Whenever I have the torch in my hand, people see me and they are able to save me from ditches, thorns and briers.”
— Babylonian Talmud, Megila 24a-b
Photo by Steve Rozansky
Chanukah is a time when we create light against the darkness. We do not understand this act just on a simple, literal level, though. The lights of Chanukah represent the hope with which the Maccabees lit the Temple Menorah even though they only had one day’s supply of oil. The lights represent the struggle against ignorance and intolerance typified by King Antiochus. The lights represent our desire to see beyond material, physical reality and to glimpse the divinity that is hidden in the reality all around us.
This lesson from the Talmud comes to remind us of something else about the Chanukah lights. They are not just there for our own benefit. The light of hope is there for us to help the hopeless. The light of justice and tolerance is there for us to show others the way to create a more just world. The light of mystical insight is there for us to bring greater meaning and understanding to the lives of others. If we look at the Chanukah lights only for our own benefit, we are making ourselves blind to their most important power.
The light we create at this time of year is a light that is meant to be shared. There are two unique mitzvot associated with this holiday. The first is to kindle the Chanukah lights. That is the mitzvah of creating the light for ourselves. The second mitzvah is pirsum ha-nes
, “to make the miracle known.” We put the lit menorah in the window so that everyone who passes by our homes will see it and know of God’s miracles. That is the mitzvah of creating light for others, to give them hope, justice and understanding.
We also must remember that, sometimes, we are the blind man. Sometimes it is we who are groping through the darkness. It is then that we need the assistance of others to help us through life’s difficult ditches, thorns and briers. We hold up the lights of Chanukah as an act of humility that says, when I am in need of help, I am willing to allow others to come and aid me.
Have a happy fifth night of Chanukah!Other posts on this topic:What is Chanukah?The Miracle of the First Day of ChanukahSeason of Miracles, Season of HopeDevarim: How?
Dreidel is everyone's favorite Chanukah game involving a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on the sides. Really, what's not to like?
While there are a few variants on the rules, playing dreidel is fairly predictable. The pot never gets too big because someone cleans it out every few turns by getting a Gimmel. The game tends to go on forever without anyone gaining a decisive lead. Eventually, people start eating their chocolate gelt until there aren't enough pieces left to wager. Ho hum.
That's why, a few years ago, I created a dreidel board game to make things a bit more interesting. The board and the cards for the game can be downloaded below. The rules are printed on the board. You will need a few additional items: A dreidel, chocolate gelt, a menorah, candles, and different colored game tokens for each player to move around the board.
Players in "The Dreidel Game" take turns, spinning the dreidel and moving around the board accordingly. It's a cooperative game in which everyone works together to light all of the candles in the menorah. (I don't actually light the candles with fire. Just putting a candle into one of the holders on the menorah means that it is "lit.") When all the candles are in place, the game is over and everyone wins.
The game works well in my family because my daughters don't like competitive games with "losers." It might also be more interesting than the traditional dreidel game, especially for older kids and adults, and it gives everyone a chance to hear and tell the Chanukah story and to think about miracles in their lives.
This is my Chanukah gift to you for the fourth night. You're welcome to give it a try tonight or any time you want. It's helpful to print the board in the largest format your printer will allow, or enlarge it on a color photocopier. Let me know if you like it.
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Chanukah is the most interpreted and reinterpreted holiday in the Jewish calendar. Even the rabbis of the Talmud were not certain how to define it. They began their discussion of the holiday by asking the question, "What is Chanukah?" (B. Shabbat 21b)
Apparently, at the time of the rabbis, there was no single, clear answer to the question. I don't think there is one in our times, either.
In the Talmud, the rabbis tell the story of how God sustained a single cruse of oil to keep the Temple Menorah lit for eight days. That version of "the miracle of Chanukah" does not appear in any sources earlier than the Talmud, even though the events of Chanukah occurred more than 250 years earlier. What is more, the rabbis gloss over what previously had been the central miracle in the story—the military victory by the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire in the year 165 b.c.e.
Why didn't the rabbis of the second century c.e. like the story of Judah Maccabee and the improbable victory of the Israelites over the far more powerful Seleucids? There are at least two reasons:
1) They despised the Maccabees' descendants, the heavy-handed Hasmonean Dynasty, which ruled over Judea into the first century c.e. The rabbis opposed the Hasmoneans military expansionism and the cruelty with which they ruled their own people. They were not about to celebrate the birth of that dynasty by making Chanukah a holiday about Judah Maccabee. (His name does not even appear in the Talmud).
2) The rabbis lived in a time when Judea was under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Judeans had suffered horribly after disastrous rebellions against the Romans in 70, 117, and 135 c.e. The rabbis opposed any further militant action against the Romans as self-defeating. Their reluctance to celebrate Chanukah as the commemoration of a military victory over occupiers may have been because they did not want the holiday to incite further rebellions.
So, what did the rabbis do? They changed the central story of Chanukah. They cut out the Maccabees military triumph and replaced it with the story about the cruse of oil. The rabbis established a passage from the book of Zechariah as the special reading for the Shabbat that falls during Chanukah. In this passage, the prophet sees a vision of the Temple Menorah and an angel tells him, "'Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit,' says Adonai of Hosts" (Zechariah 4:6).
Get it? The rabbis are telling you that if you're looking for a hero on Chanukah, it isn't the guy with the sword in his hand. It's God.
The rabbis changed the meaning of Chanukah. The funny thing is, we've never stopped changing its meaning to this day. Today, many American Jews love to talk about Chanukah as the anniversary of the world's first rebellion for religious freedom, or as a battle against the threat of assimilation. Both of those versions of the Chanukah story say a lot more about our own times and the attitudes of today's Jews than they say about anything that happened in the second century b.c.e.
First of all, the Maccabees were not interested in the concept of freedom of religion for anyone other than themselves. They would not have been fans of the First Amendment, which defends the rights of all
religions. The Maccabees killed people, including Israelites, for not adhering to their own version of Torah.
The book of Maccabees was written by Jews in the first century b.c.e., and tells the story of the rebellion long before the time of the Talmud. It contains no mention of the miracle of the oil, but it does tell a story about how the Maccabees celebrated their victory by wearing garlands made of ivy (II Maccabees 10). Ivy is the Greek symbol of celebration, associated with the god Dionysus. Why would the Maccabees, of all people, celebrate their victory over the scourge of Greek culture by using a Greek symbol? It seems that cultural assimilation was not really the main point of their rebellion. They were interested mostly in not being under foreign control.
The meaning of Chanukah has continued to change with the times. To mystics of European Chasidism in the 18th century, Chanukah was the holiday of complete repentance through the ecstatic love of God. To the Zionists of the middle of the 20th century, it was a holiday to remember that "in every age a hero arose to redeem us," and which calls upon the Jewish people to arise again.
So, let me suggest that we are again at a moment when we need to find new meanings for this holiday of many meanings. American Jews today do not need another reason to celebrate military victories while living in a country that has, by far, the most powerful military the world has ever seen. We do not need another reason to preach against assimilation to a Jewish community that needs to make interfaith families feel welcomed, not shunned. We do not need another occasion to get huffy about our right to practice our religion while living in a society which, honestly speaking, has done more to protect our religious rights than any society in human history.
What we do need, however, is to return Judaism to being a religion of joy, not one that forever bewails our tearful past. We need to return Judaism to a tradition in which people can fulfill their spiritual needs and find meaning in their lives. Chanukah can be a holiday to celebrate that, and more.
The root of Chanukah is hope. It is a holiday in which we light candles at the darkest time of year to coax the cosmos into turning the clock around and start adding light to our days instead of taking it away. (Miraculously, it works every year.) It is a holiday about finding joy, and not despair, in dark moments. It is a holiday about connecting to our families and communities despite a society that seems to try to pull us apart from one another. It is a holiday in which we celebrate difference—both our own uniqueness as Jews, and also the diversity within the human family that has many and glorious ways of celebrating this time of year.
This year, as I light my family's Chanukah menorah, I look up and down my street and see a dazzling display of lights celebrating many versions of different holidays. To me, it is not threatening. It is beautiful. Chanukah is an occasion for knowing ourselves to be a part of the bigger story of the cycles of nature and the undying fire of the human spirit.
What is Chanukah? It is a holiday of joy.
Happy third night of Chanukah!Other posts on this topic:
The Miracle of the First Day of Chanukah