Divre Harav – December 2016

The basic mitzvah of Hanukkah is to place the Hanukkiyah in a window or doorway so it is visible outside the home, thus publicizing the miracle. We tend to think of religious observance as a personal and private matter, and to some extent it is. My religious practice is my own business, not anyone else’s. It is not the government’s right nor my neighbor’s right to coerce me into spending my time or money in support of a religious institution – that’s how the establishment clause of the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States has been interpreted. However, that doesn’t mean that we, as individual religious people, are prohibited from sharing ourselves in the open marketplace of social and religious discourse. As Jews, we have a mitzvah to share our story with pride. The basic Hanukkah story, tossing aside the story of the long-burning oil for the moment, is that of a group of people who refused to compromise their basic belief in one God,  primacy of Torah, circumcision, sanctity of the Sabbath, and refusal to eat pork. We don’t need to be obnoxious about sharing the story. We’re not trying to save our neighbors’ souls. Rather, it is a matter of personal pride. Proud American might wear flag pins on their lapels. A rainbow bumper sticker shows support for LGBT issues. Pink ribbon pins draw attention to the need for increased funding for breast cancer research. The brightly lit Hanukkah menorah in the window proclaims religious freedom for all.

December is Jewish pride month. How many different foods can you fry in oil to remember lighting the menorah to rededicate the Temple? What is one thing you can do this month to show public pride in your Jewish identity that you would not otherwise do?

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hanukkiyah: The name for the nine branched Hanukkah menorah.
  • Brit: covenant
  • Milah: circumcision
  • Sufganiyot: Jelly donuts, a common Israel Hanukkah treat.
  • Sevivon: dreydel

Psalm 16

Many articles spilled much ink noting that Hanukkah 2014 was the earliest Hanukkah in the solar year in 125 years. Some noted that Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving again in 70,000-some years, an assertion which assumes that the growing error between the Jewish year and the solar year will never be corrected. Were this the case, in 35,000 years we would be celebrating Rosh Hashanah in April and Passover in September. The problem is that the Jewish year is corrected to match the Julian year. We follow the Gregorian calendar, which corrected a very slight error in the length of the year. At some point, when Passover is projected to fall too late in the Spring, the calendar will be corrected so the celebration of Thanksgivakkah or Hodunakkah may very well happen again, although not necessarily in our lifetime.

I bless the LORD who has guided me … (16:7)

The Hanukkah story is an example of how we use a religious myth – the myth that God’s guiding hand can be seen in history. Please do not misunderstand the word ‘myth.’ It does not mean ‘a made up story, one that is not true.’ A myth may or may not be a historically true story, but it does teach something significant and true. The most accurate definition of ‘myth’ is a narrative that provides a meaningful framework for our lives. The Exodus story is the backbone of the Torah. The principles derived from the experience of the transition from slavery to Mount Sinai, such as the obligation to take care of the weak and vulnerable in our society, are the most important principles of the Torah. Tzedakah and Shabbat, for example, are explicitly linked to the Exodus.

The way we tell the Hanukkah story reinforces the idea that our successes, our victories, are directly linked to acting on our faith in God.

An objective telling of the Hanukkah story might focus on military acumen, the wisdom of fighting a guerrilla war against the Syrian army rather than confronting them in the conventional face to face battle. The Syrians, fighting on behalf of Greek values, were a powerful army, but not particularly committed to the ideology for which they were fighting. They could be worn down over time, and that’s what the Mattathias and his five sons did.

The theological story of Hanukkah emphasizes the victory of the few against the many, the weak against the powerful, an event that could only have happened with God’s intervention. This story is the one told by the al ha-nissim prayer, inserted into the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon on Hanukkah.

An even more extreme story is told by the Talmud to explain the 9 branched Hanukkah menorah. The 8 day celebration of Hanukkah, we are told, is only indirectly connected to the Maccabee’s victory. Rather, we are celebrating the miracle that the last vial of consecrated oil, uncontaminated by Syrian idolatrous hands, burned for 8 days, until new oil could be pressed.

The dreydel, with its four letters representing “A Great Miracle Happened There,” is ambiguous. Which miracle are we talking about – the military victory, the oil, or both? It doesn’t really matter – both stories illustrate “I bless the LORD who has guided me …”, seeing the hand of Divine providence in the critical events of our history.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2013

You’ll notice that Rosh Hashanah begins just two days after Labor day. You will recall that Pesah began very early. You’re probably wondering … what about Hanukkah?

The article is adapted from an article by Jonathan Mizrahi, which can be found here:

sites.google.com/site/mizrahijonathan/home/ThanksgivingAndHanukkah

This year features an anomaly for American Jews – The first day of Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving, on 11/28/2013. Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have only coincided once before, in 1888 … and it will never happen again. [Note: Prior to 1942, Thanksgiving was the LAST Thursday in November, and thus could occur on November 29 or 30. In 1888, Hanukkah began on November 29, which was also Thanksgiving.]

Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday in November, meaning the latest it can be is November 28. November 28 is also the earliest date on which Hanukkah can fall. The Jewish calendar repeats on a 19 year cycle, and Thanksgiving repeats on a 7 year cycle. You would therefore expect them to coincide roughly every 19 x 7 = 133 years. Why won’t it ever happen again?

The reason is because the Jewish calendar is very slowly getting out of sync with the solar calendar, at a rate of 3 days per 1000 years (not bad for a many centuries old calendar!). The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar modified by the addition of leap months to adjust for the length of the solar year. However, the assumption it makes about the length of the solar year corresponds to the Julian calendar. In 1582, Pope Gregory introduced a calendar reform (known as the Gregorian calendar) when it was recognized that the spring equinox was slowly drifting later at the rate of about 3 days per 1000 years. The solution was to reduce the number of leap years – century years divisible by 100 (but not divisible by 400) are not leap years. Thus, 2000 was a leap year, but 2100, 2200, and 2300 will not be.

This means that while presently Hanukkah can be as early as November 28, in the year 2200 the Jewish calendar will drift forward so that the earliest Hanukkah will be November 29. The last time Hanukkah falls on 11/28 is 2146 (which happens to be a Monday).

Of course, if the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way, then it will slowly move forward through the Gregorian calendar, until it loops all the way back to where it is now. So, Hanukkah will again fall on Thursday, November 28 … in the year 79,811! Of course, Jewish law  and the guidelines for determining the Jewish calendar require Passover to be in the spring.  Therefore, the Jewish calendar will have to be adjusted long before it loops all the way around. Of course, the messiah will have come long before then to sort out these kinds of sticky problems!

Remember that “day” in the Jewish calendar starts at night. This means that although this year the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, candles will be lit for the first NIGHT of Hanukkah the night BEFORE Thanksgiving. When the first day of Hanukkah falls the day after Thanksgiving, the first night’s candles are lit the night OF Thanksgiving.  This will happen two more times, in 2070 and 2165.

***

I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my additional activities of the past month:

  • • I am one of the co-founders of the Coalition for Small Conservative Congregations (CSCC) and one of the planners of the Rabbinic conference sponsored by the CSCC. I have been working on our 3rd annual conference, taking place in Chicago June 2-4.
  • • The weekly Torah study group that has been meeting for about 15 years (for the last 10, at Schuler Books and Music on 28th St.) will shift focus this fall to begin reading a chapter a week from the classical prophets. I have been researching books and commentaries on Isaiah.

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.

 

Ayeka Reflections – Bringing God into Hanukah

From my friend Rabbi AriehBen David, who has created an organization called Ayeka.

Ayeka’s Mission
Ayeka is bringing God back to the conversation.
Ayeka provides an agenda-free, safe space to personally explore the question: How can I best fulfill the challenge of living in the Image of God – in my daily life, my relationships, my work and community, with the Jewish people and all of humanity.

I learned a very important lesson from my friend Stuart.

Stuart is part of a men’s Ayeka group in Atlanta. We go away on retreats once or twice a year. We hang out, barbeque, eat a lot, drink a lot of beer, and talk about how we can become our “best selves”. The last retreat was a bit unbelievable – a bunch of guys ruminating on how we can become more loving. Not exactly beating drums in the forest.

Last time when we were talking about acts that best reflect our living in the Image of God – Stuart shared that he tips parking lot attendants. He said “Look, they have a pretty boring job, locked up in a booth most of the day. When I’m paying for the parking I always tell the attendant – ‘Keep the change.’ The look of astonishment and his smile is worth a lot more than the 2 bucks it costs me.”

So a couple of weeks ago I was with my son Amichai when we exited a parking lot and I remembered Stuart’s custom. I told the parking lot guy, “Keep the change. Have a nice day.” For a moment – his eyes sparkled and his face lit up.

Connection to Hanukah?

Isn’t our custom on Hanuka a bit strange? We light a candle – and then we are prohibited from using or enjoying the light ! More than strange, it’s kind of ridiculous.

Do we cook food and then say that it is forbidden to eat the food?

Do we sew clothes and then say that it is forbidden to wear the clothes?

But this is precisely what happens on Hanukah. We light candles – and then after the blessings we add: “These candles are holy – kodesh hem – and it is forbidden for us to use their light.”

What’s the point? Why light a candle if we can’t use its light?

Because lighting Hanukah candles is not about the light – it’s about the lighting.

If the candles get blown out – we don’t have to relight them. Our mission has already been accomplished. We can’t control what ultimately will happen to the candle. And our lighting is not supposed to be self-serving. We light the candles, releasing the glow that was within them. The potential for light already existed in the candle. It just needed to be given a spark.

And that is precisely what we need to do for each other. Supply the spark. Not for our own benefit. Not to receive something.

On Hanukah, it’s about the lighting – and not about the benefit or what we may receive from the candle.

The Talmud compares a candle to a person’s soul. We’re not in control of what ultimately happens to another person’s soul.

We’re just here to “light it” and then it becomes holy – kodesh hu.

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Questions for Reflection

  • When have you last seen someone “light up” someone else’s soul?
  • Who has lit yours?
  • Who can you spark this Hanukah?