Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – January/2012 – Sacred Time

The month of Tevet, falling in late December – early January, contains the fast day of the 10th of Tevet (this year, Thursday, January 5) commemorating the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia and culminated in the destruction of the Temple.  In 1951, the Israeli chief rabbinate decided to turn this day into a memorial day for Shoah victims whose date of death is unknown.  Despite this, in 1954 the Israeli Keneset passed a law creating a Holocaust Memorial day on the 27th of Nisan, a day approximately midway between the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the celebration of Israel Independence Day. Nevertheless, the 10th of Tevet remains the official Yahrtzeit day for victims of the Shoah whose actual Yahrtzeit is unknown.

Sometimes, Jews complain that Judaism has too many holidays.  I sympathize.  However, I think the human being has an psychological need to mark and celebrate time. Freethinkers have a calendar of events that often include seasonal celebrations, such as winter solstice parties, as well as regular gatherings. I sometimes wonder whether the over-commercialization of Christmas is related to the relative paucity of sacred days of the Christian calendar.  If our calendar doesn’t give us enough of a variety of days to celebrate, then we will take the celebrations that we have and expand them.

Sacred days are event magnets.  Rarely does a holiday commemorate only one event.  Most Jewish holidays, like the 10th of Tevet, have multiple associations.  The Biblical festivals, which began as Harvest festivals, accumulated additional layers of meaning.  the 9th of Av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed, is also the day on which Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492 as well as other national calamities and exiles.

As Americans, we live our lives by the rhythm of the secular calendar.  The day of the week often determines when we will wake up, where we will go, and what we will do.  We know what the next holiday is because that gives us a break from our routine to look forward to.

To live a dedicated Jewish life, we live our lives by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. We are aware of the number of days until Shabbat, and that determines when we wake up, where we go, and who we see.  If we know the day of the month, then we also know the phase of the moon and approximately how many days until the next holiday, which not only breaks our routine but also most likely will require some preparation to celebrate properly.

The Jewish calendar ought not be something to resent (or worse, to ignore).  Rather than seeing it as an intrusion on our lives, we might see it as an opportunity to examine a different dimension of our lives.  In the short, cold days of winter, isn’t it nice to have Tu Bishvat (February 8), Purim (March 8), and even Pesah (April 7) to look forward to?


Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – December, 2011

I have written in the past about the historical Hanukkah, and how the miracle of one jar of oil lasting for eight days is missing from the historical record.  Although this is the story that we teach children, I think there is a much more powerful and important lesson in the real story of Hanukkah.

I had an appointment last month to meet with a ten year old non-Jewish boy and his father.  The son had been reading about Hanukkah and had some questions.  He asked me if it was OK to light a menorah.  Rather than giving him an immediate answer, I asked him why he wanted to light the Hanukkiah.  I wanted to know what it would mean to him, to light the Hanukkah menorah.  At first, he couldn’t answer the question very well.  It wasn’t a question that he had considered.  I had the impression that he liked the exotic nature of participating in another religious’s ritual, that he thought that lighting a menorah sounded fun. After speaking for a bit, however, I was impressed at the seriousness of the young man. It became apparent that he had done some serious reading about Hanukkah – he just hadn’t connected all of the dots. He was able to describe the ritual of lighting candles very precisely and he knew the history of Hanukkah, but he hadn’t connected the history of the holiday to the ritual of the celebration of the holiday.

I led him through a series of questions – first, we talked about Thanksgiving.  I asked him to tell me why we celebrate Thanksgiving, to describe the historical Thanksgiving, and to explain why the Pilgrims ended up on the shores of North America in the first place. He quickly came to the conclusion that one of the stories behind Thanksgiving is a story of a group of people seeking religious freedom.

I then asked him to relate this to the story of Hanukkah.  He told me how the Maccabees fought against the Syrian army to purify the Temple.  I suggested that the Syrian-Greek culture was being imposed on the Jews against their will, so Hanukkah was also a celebration of religious freedom.

I told him a story that happened in 1993 in Billings, Montana.  Among other acts of hate, Swastikas were painted on the door of the synagogue and a Jewish home was defaced. The non-Jewish community responded by painting over the defaced property.  In late November, beer bottles and cinder blocks were through through the windows of Jewish homes displaying hanukkah menorahs.  Churches began distributing pictures of menorahs, and within days thousands upon thousands of Christian homes were displaying menorahs in solidarity with the Jewish community.

Generally, I do not support the idea of non-Jews appropriating our rituals and symbols.  However, my message to this young man was that as long as he understood that the light of the menorah is intended to be a call for religious freedom, that I would understand why he felt compelled to light the candles.  I offer you the same message – don’t light the Hanukkah menorah because God produced an eight day supply of oil where only one day’s worth was expected.  That’s a cool magic trick, but God can do better.  Light the Hanukkiah because the faith of a small group of Jews in God and Torah was so strong that against all odds, they achieved religious freedom.  That’s a miracle worth celebrating.