On the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall this past Saturday evening, I joined a number of rabbinic colleagues and our various congregants, in addition to our friends and colleagues from the Christian and Muslim communities, for a demonstration of unity in light of the increasingly emboldened face of bigotry and hatred. One of the speakers who particularly impressed me was Linda Sarsour from the Arab American Association of New York. When she finished speaking she and I hugged, because we realized that we shared our name. But in addition, we share our desire to live in a country that embraces the core value of respect for the dignity of human beings, regardless of religion, gender, sexual preference, or ethnic background. As she stepped to the podium, some hecklers across the street raised their voices in agreement with Donald Trump’s expressed intention (IF he were given the chance to implement it) to exclude all members of the Muslim faith from entering America. When the heckling grew louder, a number of us – Jews, Muslims, Christians, women and men – drew closer and surrounded her in support, as she recounted the pressure and harassment that the Muslim community has had to endure, and continues to endure, here in America, where she was born.
A makeshift menorah was put together for the occasion by Eddie Ehrlich, whose brother Danny is the VP of Keshet Tours, and is organizing our trip to Israel this July. Eddie spoke eloquently about his father who had been expelled from Vienna by the Nazis, and found refuge here in America. Then he lit the menorah, which shone as a bright light of freedom against the darkness of bigotry and exclusion. Each one of us is a descendant of immigrants. Some of our ancestors, and perhaps even some of us, came to these shores seeking refuge from persecution, and in some cases, almost certain death. Some came seeking the possibility of a better life for themselves and their children – a life of economic, educational, social and professional opportunities that were closed to them in their countries of origin.
In our Torah portion this week, Joseph’s brothers have made the long journey down to Egypt to escape the famine that was blanketing the land of Israel, and most of the Ancient Near East. They were new to this place and unfamiliar with their surroundings. They had to plead their case before the Viceroy himself, who appeared as a threatening figure to them. Only after proving themselves worthy did the Viceroy reveal himself as their long-lost brother Joseph, whom they did not recognize, as his appearance was that of Egyptian royalty. This is the Torah’s etiology for how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt. As we will read beginning in January, the sojourn there didn’t turn out so well.
This is a different time and place. But hopefully we have learned the lessons of history. As American Jews we continue to stand up and raise our voices against the scourge of bigotry, ostracism and persecution that threaten our values at this time.
Our Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah is taken from the prophet Zechariah, Chapter 4. It envisions the lampstand once again in the Temple in the Jerusalem, as the angel explains its meaning. Verse 6 proclaims: “Then he explained to me as follows: ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel. Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said the LORD of Hosts.’’ We in the Reform Movement particularly know this verse as it was popularized in the beloved song by Debbie Friedman, ז”ל, “Not By Might, Not By Power,” with which (hopefully) all our Religious School and Youth Group kids are quite familiar. The primary verse of Debbie’s song goes: “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace!”
Debbie plays beautifully upon this verse from Zechariah, particularly since the Rabbis of the Talmudic period fixed this section as the Haftarah for this Shabbat. But, my friends, let’s be real. In actuality, the celebration of Chanukah is rooted in a major military victory by Judah the Maccabee and his foot soldiers, as they defeated the army of the Syrian despot Antiochus IV, who had defiled the Temple as he tried to prohibit the practice of Judaism in the land of Israel. “Chanukah,” as we remember, means “dedication.” When the Jews defeated the Syrians, Judah and his army held an eight-day festival to “rededicate” the Temple to the God of Israel on 25 Kislev, 165 BCE. That is history.
Not by might, nor by power? Not according to Judah the Maccabee! But as the Talmudic period progressed, Jewish observance had to become more insulated and systematized as it coped with the realities of Roman rule. As a result, the Rabbis became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating a military victory, as it might stimulate militaristic impulses among the Jews, which ultimately would be deleterious to their well-being as a community until something could realistically bring them out from under Roman rule. Extremism had no place in the community for the Rabbis. So the Rabbis looked at the rededication ceremony, which of course required pure olive oil for the lamps that flanked the altar of the Temple, and wrote into the Talmud the story of how, when Judah’s soldiers expelled the Syrians from the Temple, they only found one jar of pure olive oil, only enough for one night. But the Festival of Rededication would be an eight-day festival (most probably modeled upon the Festival of Sukkot). And then, THE MIRACLE! That single jar of oil lasted for eight days and nights to keep the lamps on the altar burning!
What, then, do the Rabbis encourage us to celebrate? Not raw military might, but the story of the miracle of the oil for rededication. As the letters on the draydl would indicate, NES GADOL HAYAH SHAM – A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED THERE. (By the way, the letters on Israeli draydls stand for NES GADOL HAYAH PO – A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED HERE!) It is a powerful message: the pursuit of peace is a more desirable aspiration for us as Jews.
Modern secular Zionists have rejected this pacifistic miracle-driven portrayal of this festival. This controversy continues among our people. Most of us are willing to acknowledge both the militarism of the history, and the more fantasy-driven miracle of the oil. Either way, the Festival of Chanukah is one of our most beloved as Jews, and brings its message of light into the darkness of the season, and of the times. And indeed, we are living in rather dark and dangerous times at this very moment. Thus we all hope that the lights of Chanukah will help to illumine our community and our world, particularly at this time of trouble.
A Chag Urim Sameach to all – a joyous Festival of Lights!
The Youth Group has shared so many fun activities, visited some amazing places, and built long-lasting friendships during this last and memorable year. Building DIY kites and flying them in Prospect Park, making hamantaschen in the 3rd floor kitchen, bowling in Times Square, and creating a complete Hanukkah feast. It wasn’t only about having fun; it’s also about giving back to the community and helping those in need. We’ve gone on Midnight Runs to cloth and feed the homeless and helped out at the Temple on Martin Luther King Jr. day to prepare food and goods for the elderly. Some places we visited this year include the Museum of Jewish Heritage and two different cemeteries along the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Thank you to everyone who helped make this year so special.
Happy Thanksgivukah! I admit that earlier this fall I resisted using this greeting, because I didn’t want to risk compromising the integrity of either holiday. Nevertheless, the confluence of these two beloved celebrations will not come around again for about 79,000 years, so I figured, why not?! If I’m still here for the next one, I’ll worry about it then. . .
As I said in my Bulletin message for this month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are both celebrations of freedom – freedom from hunger and want, and freedom from religious coercion. The Pilgrims came here in 1620 to escape the religious tyranny of the Anglican Church, whose tenets they did not agree with. When they arrived, they faced the harshness of the New England winter and struggled to survive. Then, with the help of the Native Americans who were here, they eventually were able to plant appropriate crops and harvest them successfully. They joined with their newfound friends for a feast of Thanksgiving.
In 167 BCE, the Syrian King Antiochus IV (Antiochus “Epiphanes”) imposed a series of tyrannical decrees that banned the practice of Judaism in Judea, and coerce Jews into worshiping Zeus, and adopting pagan practices. The Syrians plundered and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. This was effectively the first religiously-motivated persecution in history. But in 165 BCE, Judah the Maccabee and his army scored a huge military victory when they defeated the Syrian Army and expelled Antiochus’ army from the Temple. Then in celebration, and in rededication of the Temple to the God of Israel, the Maccabees were finally able to celebrate the 8-day harvest festival of Sukkot, which they could not celebrate two months earlier, with the Syrians still occupying the Temple. (The oil, of course, was needed to light the menorah in the Temple for all eight of these days of this festival.) So Hanukkah, within its own context, is also a celebration of Thanksgiving – both for the harvest, and for the assertion of Jewish integrity.
As I see it, this “Thanksgivukah” is a gift to us this year. We will have the opportunity to celebrate Chanukah with many of our family members and friends that perhaps we wouldn’t normally be able to see during Hanukkah. I hope that we will take advantage of that opportunity. Turkey and latkes? Why not! Pumpkin pie and jelly doughnuts? Oh, go ahead! But most important is that we take some time this Thursday to remember how fortunate we are, both as Americans, and as Jews. May we never take either of them for granted. Celebrate with blessings and song.