The eighth day of Chanukah always seems like a let down after the candles have burned out. The holiday will not be over for another twenty-four hours, but there is not much left to celebrate. Apart from reciting Hallel
in the morning service and eating leftover latkes (as if anyone could resist them at the first serving), there is not much to do on the last day.
In some ways, though, this final day of the holiday's lingering seems appropriate. Chanukah was the last holiday added to the calendar by the rabbis of the Talmud, at least as far as its origins are concerned. The events that Chanukah commemorates occurred in the second century BCE, after all of the events recorded in the Hebrew Bible. As such, Chanukah represents the last celebration of a miracle performed by God for the Jewish people. Ever since then, we have been lingering anticlimactically — like we do on the eighth day of Chanukah, after the candles are spent — waiting for the next miracle.
Of course, just because we don't have a holiday on the calendar to celebrate another miracle, does not mean that there are no miracles today. (Some will argue, and I will agree, that Yom Ha'atzmaut
is actually the commemoration of a modern miracle). Miracles surround us all the time.
Later today, I will be traveling to a mikveh in Orlando for the ritual conversion to Judaism of a woman I have been working with for the last year. Her story is nothing short of miraculous. She discovered, quite on her own, that Torah and the Jewish approach to God and life spoke to her much more powerfully than the religion of her upbringing. Without ever being a part of a Jewish community, she learned on her own until she came to the synagogue in search of a place to practice the tradition she had already adopted in her heart.
I love that story. I love the idea that in this crazy world with so many things tugging at us to abandon ourselves to our own immediate gratification, wealth, and privilege, people still have a deep craving to discover something deeper, richer, and more fulfilling. People are still searching for God, even in an age when God can sometimes seem very quiet. That, to me, is a miracle.
It is a miracle that is very fitting to the last day of Chanukah, after the candles have guttered. Even in a moment of lingering and waiting, we discover dear and beautiful miracles waiting for us, all around us.
Happy Chanukah.Other Posts on This Topic:A Day of ChanukahThe Last Miracle
The well hyped convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah is now history. We'll never see the two holidays come together in this way again. What did we learn? Here are some thoughts:
1) It usually takes me a week to work off the weight I gain over Thanksgiving and a week or two to work off the latkes and sour cream of Chanukah. I am not making any predictions about how long I'll be recovering from a combined orgy of sweet potatoes, sufganiyot, cranberry sauce and chocolate gelt. This could take a while.
2) For all the many words that have been written by myself and others about the things that Thanksgiving and Chanukah have in common, one thing emerges as the central truth: Family brings us together. It's not turkey, it's not the latkes, it's not the candles, and it's not watching football that people love about these two holidays. Chanukah and Thanksgiving each hold a place in our hearts because they are holidays that bring us together with family near and far.
3) Like most American Jews, my extended family includes Jews and non-Jews. We all get together every year for a Thanksgiving celebration that is warm and joyful, but without much ritual or overt spirituality. I think that all of us — Jews and non-Jews — found something meaningful in lighting the Chanukah menorah together as a moment of intentional reflection on our blessings and the miracles in our lives. Even if we never celebrate Chanukah at Thanksgiving again, I hope our experience this year will bring greater spirituality for all of us to our Thanksgiving gatherings in the future.
4) In the end, the hype did not really matter. All of those creative recipes for pumpkin challah, sweet potato latkes, and sufganiyot filled with cranberry sauce, did not transform either holiday into something new. The turkey menorahs were cute, but they will just join the many Chanukah menorahs already on the shelf that our kids made in Sunday school or that we got as wedding gifts from forgotten relatives. "Thanksgivukkah" was the Jewish Y2K — a calendrical oddity that will soon be forgotten.
5) There are four candles (plus the shamash) burning on my menorah right now, and they look lovely. In past years, we never let the gaudy glare of Christmas diminish their glow. This year, Black Friday didn't distract us, either. These lights are meant for gazing upon, remembering and praising the Source of our blessings. That is the same this year as it is every year. We will have four more nights of it this week. Make the most of them!
Other Posts on This Topic:Chanukah ChaikuThe Audacity of the Miracle
I ran this morning in the Concord Turkey Trot
. I can't brag about my time
, but my cousin Bonnie had the best time for a woman over forty. (Yay, Bonnie!!).
I had a lot of fun running. This was my third time participating in this annual Thanksgiving tradition. It was my first time, though, running with a Chanukah menorah hat on my head. Over the past two years, I had seen plenty of people running the race with turkey hats and other Thanksgiving-themed costumes. I thought, this year, it is Chanukah's turn.
The hat got a lot of comments. I heard plenty of "Happy Chanukah!" "Great hat!" and "Where'd you get that?" (The true and ironic answer to that question is here
It would be a stretch to say that running through the streets of a New England town with a funny hat on my head is a holy act. I will say though, that it felt like I was doing a small part to fulfill the central mitzvah of Chanukah. From a traditional perspective, the reason for lighting a Chanukah menorah is pirsum ha-nes
, to "make known the miracle" (B. Shabbat 21a-24a). This is why a lit Chanukah menorah ideally should be placed in a window where it can be seen by the public. For each person who smiled at my silly hat, I felt that I was helping to remind people of Chanukah, a minor holiday that celebrates God's power to change a defeat into a victory, darkness into light, and despair into hope.
Why was publicizing the miracle of Chanukah so important to the ancient rabbis? In large measure, it was because they recognized that they were living at a time when Judaism was in fierce competition with other beliefs and philosophies. In ancient Babylon and the ancient land of Israel, Jews were in competition with Christians who taught that the holiness of the Temple had been broken and replaced. Gnosticism rejected the idea of a single creator God who is the only deity. The rabbis used the public display of lit menorahs at the darkest time of year as a powerful form of advertising for the unique God who brought a miracle to affirm the Temple's holiness and who ruled the universe alone.
We also are living in a time of competition for the hearts and minds of today's Jews, although the terms of the competition have changed. For Jews who believe that religion is nothing more than a grandiose superstition, or who believe that the synagogue is a place of stuffy and meaningless rituals, we have a lot of public relations work to do. "Making known the miracle" today may mean presenting an image of Judaism that is meaningful, spiritual, fun and joyful. We need to publicize a Judaism that helps people grapple with the most difficult challenges of their lives and that helps them discover their own greatest happiness and fulfillment in life.
Does wearing a silly hat help in that publicity campaign? Maybe a little. In any case, it is a gentle reminder that there are plenty of folks in the world today who are proud to be Jews, who think that Judaism is far from a stuffy and meaningless aspect of their identity. It is a way of making known that being Jewish, and loving Judaism, feels great.Other Posts on This Topic:The Last MiracleHow Does a Joyful Jew Respond to "Merry Christmas"?
You must know by now that this year, for only the second time ever, the first day of Chanukah will fall on the American holiday of Thanksgiving. You also may have heard that this will not happen again for tens of thousands of years. (More on that misconception below).
I am resisting the temptation to merge these two holidays into a single hybrid with a name that is a registered trademark. Chanukah and Thanksgiving are separate holidays, but they do have some things to teach each other.
Chanukah commemorates a miracle. In the second century BCE, the Maccabees defeated the Seleucid Empire to regain Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. At the end of the war, they needed to dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel, which included rekindling the great seven-branched Temple Menorah. However, they found only a single cruse of sanctified oil to light the Menorah — enough to burn for only a single day. Yet, when the Maccabees lit the Menorah, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to press new oil under the supervision of the Priests.
There is a question, then, about the first day of the holiday. What was the miracle of the first day? It hardly counts as a miracle if a cruse of oil, expected to burn for one day, burns for one day. Right? Why do we light a candle on the first day of Chanukah to praise a miracle that occurred on that day? What miracle?
Perhaps the miracle is that the Maccabees lit then Menorah at all. They certainly could have waited until they had more oil. But they did not. What insight caused the Maccabees to light the Menorah, even though they knew that it would take an act of God to sustain it?
Here's a way to think of it. The Maccabees spent years fighting the Seleucid Empire. They had pitted sword against sword and suffered terrible losses. When they won, they had every reason to believe that their victory was the result of their own cunning, bravery and personal sacrifice. Yet, the Maccabees recognized that the victory belonged to God, not to themselves.
This is what gave the Maccabees the confidence to light the Menorah with only a day's worth of oil. They knew that the rededication of the Temple was won "Not by might and not by power but by [God's] spirit" (Zechariah 4:6). They never lost awareness that it was God who had sustained them through the war and that God would continue to sustain them.
And this, too, is what we celebrate on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is the most spiritual and universal of all American holidays. It is a day to recognize that there is something beyond ourselves that we must thank. On this day, we remember that it is not just by our own sweat and effort that we have received the bounty and riches that we enjoy in life. We give thanks on Thanksgiving for the very same reason the Maccabees lit the Menorah. We recognize that we are blessed by something beyond ourselves.
We do have some good reason to celebrate these two holidays together, if only as a once-in-a-lifetime event. And, now, it appears, for the very last time ever.
Since 1941, the United States has fixed Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, making this year's observance, on November 28, the latest possible date for the holiday. This year, the first day of Chanukah falls on its earliest
possible date on the Gregorian calendar, November 28. However, this is the last century in which Chanukah can land as early as November 28.
The Hebrew calendar is slightly out of skew with the Gregorian calendar. With the passage of time, Hebrew dates move forward on the Gregorian calendar by an average of three-quarters of a day per century. By the end of the 21st century, this shift will make November 29 the earliest possible Gregorian date on which Chanukah can land. This year will be the last time the holidays will ever converge.
You may have heard some people say that the holidays will come back together in tens of thousands of years, after the inconsistency of the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars pushes Chanukah deeper into winter, through the spring, across the summer, and back into late autumn. But that can never happen.
The Torah requires that the Jewish holidays stay in their proper seasons. In particular, Passover must be celebrated in the spring (according to Deuteronomy 16:1). Long before Chanukah migrates across the seasons, the Hebrew calendar will have to be revised to keep Passover in the spring. When that happens, Chanukah will be locked in place, never to find itself coinciding with Thanksgiving again.
So, enjoy the convergence now and for the last time ever. Make the first day of Chanukah this year a unique opportunity to remember that the miracle of the first day is the miracle of saying, "Thank you," to a Source beyond us all.
Happy Chanukah! Happy Thanksgiving!Other Posts on This Topic:Giving ThanksThe Miracle of the First Day of Chanukah
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