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Mah Nishtanah Chanukah

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

In just about a week, we will be lighting the first candle of Hanukkah. It’s a beautiful holiday, filled with glowing lights, songs, delicious foods and family traditions. Yet maybe because of its commercialization, or perhaps because of the repetitious nature of the ceremony over eight days, sometimes we forget to see the fuller meaning of Hanukkah.

The Talmud’s explanation of the holiday begins with the famous words, “Mai Chanukah,” “What is Hanukkah.” Perhaps it should start instead with mah nishtana Chanukah—why is this holiday different from all other holidays. Of all the Jewish holidays, Hanukkah actually has the most variations—not only in its many customs, but also in the number of different stories that became interwoven, resulting in the holiday as we know it today.

The purpose of Chanukah is simple: To recall the victories of the few against the many and the miraculous survival of our faith and people, despite the many obstacles that at times seem to overwhelm us.

Yet even the two names by which the holiday is known—Hanukkah and Chag ha-Urim, the Festival of Lights, reflect several sources.

Unlike most of our other holidays, Hanukkah is not mandated in the Torah. In the middle of the 3rd century BCE, about 250 years after the Torah was sealed, the Kingdom of Judah became part of the Greek Empire. It was a peaceful takeover; but less than a hundred years later, tyrannical rulers, competition among rival priestly factions, and strife among the Judean aristocracy, evolved into a full-fledged rebellion against the Greeks.

As the popular summary of all Jewish holidays has it, they tried to kill us, they lost, let’s eat! That pretty much characterizes Chanukah, too, but of course things are never as simple as they seem. As with many other oppressors, the Greeks weren’t interested only in our physical destruction. They took aim at our religion, which they saw as barbaric and unenlightened. They forbade the study and teaching of Hebrew and the observance of our most important rituals: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (essentially, our calendar with all its holidays) and circumcision.

At first, what the Greeks offered as replacement was indeed enticing: art, literature, theater, science and, of course, Olympic contests of strength and beauty. But what they failed to take into account was our typical Jewish obstinacy. With each new oppressive measure that the Greeks enacted, so did our resistance grow. Led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his five sons, the rebellion slowly gained momentum; and despite the tragic loss in battle of Judah—known as The Maccabee—the hammer—the Greek army was ultimately defeated. Jerusalem was liberated, and the Temple, where the Greeks had placed a gold statue of Zeus and whose compound they used as a garrison for their soldiers and beasts, was cleansed and rededicated to God.

Dedication. That is the root meaning of the word Chanukah.

However, the holiday would not become known by this name for many years yet. Three hundred years later, the Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, relying on a couple of earlier histories, still called it “Urim,” The Festival of Lights.

There is a reason for that. The timing of the historical events that Hanukkah celebrates coincided with the winter solstice, the season when ancient peoples used to perform magic rituals, almost all of them involving lights and fires, in the hope of restoring to the sun its full power and strength. In Josephus, as well as the accounts he relied on, the Maccabees marked their victory with seven spears which they stuck in the ground, and to which they attached flaming torches. Those were the “lights” to which the name of the holiday referred in those days.

And why eight days? The Talmud offers two explanations: One had to do with the eight days of dedication of the original Temple—the Tabernacle, which Moses and the Israelites had constructed in the Sinai Wilderness. The other was that this number corresponds to the number of days in the fall pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. The restoration of Temple rituals meant that now Sukkot could be celebrated properly, with all the appropriate sacrifices and celebrations.

So how did the story of the little cruse of oil originate?

The wars of liberation that the Maccabees fought didn’t end with the defeat of the Greeks. Soon after came the Romans, a people whose penchant for cruelty and repression was legendary. By the end of first century, the Romans had not only conquered all of Judea, killing in the process over half a million people; but they also destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple down, leaving intact only the Western Wall. The Jewish People were reduced from a political structure to existence as a spiritual-cultural entity. The Romans replaced the Hasmonean kings, descendants of the Maccabees, with governors of their own choosing, while the role of the Priests as spiritual leaders was now taken over by the Rabbis.

The dangers of persecution led these ancient teachers to offer a new explanation for Hanukkah. While keeping the original intent and purpose, the holiday would no longer celebrate the military triumphs of our ancestors. Instead, the Rabbis now taught Chanukah as a spiritual victory. Quoting a verse from the prophet Zechariah, אֽוֹת׃בָצְ יְהוָ֥ה אָמַ֖ר אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י יכִּ֣ בְכֹ֔חַ וְלֹ֣א בְחַ֙יִל֙ לֹ֤א—“Not by power, not by might, but by My spirit alone,” the Rabbis de-emphasized military strength in favor of prayer and faith.

It’s not known who first told the story of the small cruse of olive oil that was found with the seal of the High Priest still intact on it. The miracle of the oil that miraculously lasted for eight nights—the time it takes to press fresh olive oil—was innocuous enough to pass the scrutiny of the Romans, yet meaningful enough to sustain our people through the next two thousand years. The story makes its first appearance in the Talmud, some five centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem. By then, hope for Jewish independence had all but disappeared. Survival of Judaism against all odds—though not without great sacrifice—thus became the holiday’s chief and lasting message, while its new official name—Hanukkah—evolved to reflect not physical, but rather spiritual dedication. During good times, the light of the Hanukkah candles danced in the windows and open doorways of Jewish homes. In darker times, the light was hidden deep within, serving to inspire us with its eternal message of hope, unification and redemption.

Today, with Israel once more a political reality, with Jerusalem once more our busy and flourishing capital, Hanukkah carries with it yet one more meaning. Today it reminds us that we need to remain strong not only spiritually, but also physically. A beautiful wildflower grows in Israel. It is called Dam Ha-Maccabeem—Blood of the Maccabees—and legend has it that where it grows, a drop of blood had been spilled in defense of our Land, our People and our Faith. The symbolism of this eternal crimson flower is clear to every man, woman and child.

The light of the candles we kindle in our own chanukioyt—our own Hanukkah menorahs—now extends like a rainbow all the way from our most distant past, through the blessing of the present moment, far into the future. Their many colors remind us of the diversity of our customs and traditions. They remind us of past victories as well as of terrible sacrifices we’ve had to make. Yet they also hold out hope for a bright future, a future that depends not only on God, but also on our own dedication to our people, our land, and our faith.

May the light of our Hanukkah celebrations inspire us to rededicate ourselves as have our people since time immemorial. As one candle’s light joins its fellows to produce a wonderful, great glow, so may we all unite and shine a magnificent light for all the world to see—the light of faith and hope, the light of freedom and joy for all the world to enjoy.

Kein y’hi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

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Tradition, Faith and Hope

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Toldot

Sally and I were fortunate this year to celebrate Thanksgiving with our children as well as with several members of our extended family. Not everybody was there, but considering the hectic schedules, distances and other challenges associated with travel at this season, we were all counting our blessings to be together, to sit around the table and enjoy this wonderful holiday as one loving family.

As the younger generation concluded the sumptuous meal, they left the table, leaving us grownups to reminisce over the past and to shake our heads at the sad state of the world today. We had promised in advance not to talk politics, so the conversation remained civil and cordial. But that, of course, left little to talk about except the kids!

We, the adult members of the clan, have known each other for many years now, so we didn’t have to exaggerate. We didn’t have to rhapsodize about how well our children have turned out, how successful and happy they are, and what a bright future still awaits them. Instead, we shared some bits about their lives—those bits that they allow us to know and to share with others. We talked about the past, when the kids were little; and we laughed at some of the escapades they were involved in as teenagers.

Our children are in a different phase of their lives today. No longer little, no longer teens, they have embarked on their own independent paths, each only a few paces ahead or behind the others.

The common saying goes, “Little children, little problems; big children, big problems.” It’s true. When the kids were little, we were concerned with issues that in retrospect seem tiny and unimportant. Today, we worry about the larger picture: How close are they to settling down? Where is the next stage of life going to take them? Who will be there for them when we are too old and weary?

As the Good Book says however, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I imagine these same discussions took place long before us, and will be repeated long after, too.

I imagine that Abraham, too, worried in the same way about his son, Isaac.

Perhaps, lying awake late into the night, Abraham wondered if he had done right by Isaac when he almost sacrificed the boy to God. There were few words exchanged between them as they climbed up the Mountain of God, and afterwards each went his own way, each lost in his own thoughts. There weren’t many occasions to talk after that horrifying experience: Isaac was often away from home, and when he came back, he tended to be silent and sullen.

Isaac preferred the wilderness and open fields to his father’s sheltering tent. Abraham, on the other hand, was worried by the lonely search for meaning that Isaac was on.

But Isaac, unlike his father, Abraham, actually enjoyed the solitude. Also unlike Abraham, Isaac enjoyed keeping company with the Philistines, a Greek people who lived on the edge of the desert, along the Mediterranean coast. To tell the truth, however, even when he was with them, Isaac always felt himself different. He sensed their jealousy, their lack of understanding of his ways. At times Isaac felt ostracized, perhaps even disliked by the Philistines. Business projects he started with them were often scuttled at the last minute, so that he had to move away and start all over again.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot (Genesis 25:19—28:9) we learn how Isaac nevertheless succeeded in all his ventures—which made the Philistines dislike him even more. Time after time he would dig wells to water his flocks, only to have the Philistine shepherds fill them with sand again. And yet, despite the setbacks, he only grew richer and stronger.

But Abraham still worried, even after Isaac married Rebecca. Their twin boys—Jacob and Esau—were as different as could be from one another, both in character and appearance. With each parent clearly preferring one or the other of the two, there was little peace in the household.

Yet Abraham did not lose hope.

First of all, he had God’s promise that Isaac would be blessed by God just as he was. Abraham had faith in this promise.

Additionally, Abraham had faith in his son, Isaac. Despite Isaac’s sorrows, he was a good man. He also had Rebecca, an able keeper of the tents and household.

Abraham knew he had done everything he could to bring his son, Isaac, up right. He may have made mistakes, but he always tried to atone for them. He taught Isaac about God and about what God wanted of us—to pursue justice, to seek righteousness, to show compassion to all living things.

Though many years had passed since Abraham left his family and moved to Canaan, he held on to many of his family’s traditions, and he passed these on to Isaac.

Tradition, faith and hope sustained Abraham throughout his life, and now he hoped they would be there for Isaac as well.

In our own day, we too often find ourselves stressing over similar worries and concerns. We worry about the future; we worry about our children. We worry about our faith and our people. We see our children straying from familiar paths, and we worry that they might lose their way and consequently be lost to us and to our people. A mere 71 years after the Shoah, the Holocaust, we worry about the Promised Land and about the future of our people. We see the assimilation and the loss of pride in our Jewish identity. And we also see the ongoing hatred—today we have a word for it: anti-Semitism—and we worry about its tenacity, its viciousness, and its ferocity.

Yet the very truths that sustained Abraham still hold true for us today: We have God’s promise, which, 3600 years later, has withstood all tests, including the test of time. Furthermore, we know our children and grandchildren to be good people. We have done our best to educate them, to set them on the right path, to teach them our traditions and give them the spiritual nourishment we know will keep and sustain them in the future. They, in return, have shown us time and again that they have lost nothing of what we’ve taught them. No matter how far they seem to wander, they will return, just as Isaac returned, just as we ourselves have returned. This is the faith Abraham held on to, the faith that guided all our ancestors. And this is the faith that will also sustain us, our families, our Land and our people for as long as humankind exists.

May the glow of these Shabbat candles remind us that even the darkest and longest night is but a bridge toward the light. May our faith and traditions keep us safe and warm along all our journeys. And may hope always be at our side to ward off all anxiety, fear and apprehension.

Kein y’hi ratzon.

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A Moral Faith

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlach

Not much good happens to our Patriarch Jacob in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4—36:43). Insinuation and accusations have caused him to escape from Laban’s house. Unlike his first hasty departure 20 years earlier, however, this time he is not leaving empty handed. He is rich, head of a large family and in charge of many flocks and herds.

But whereas when he left his first home, he was bold and unafraid, this time Jacob has to face his worst fears.

Youth is confident of its own strength. Youth believes in its own power and invincibility. Nothing like life to teach you a lesson in vulnerability.

About to cross the river that divides between exile and home, between his past and his future, Jacob has to face some mysterious being. It’s unclear whether this being is a demon or angel. In the middle of the night the difference may not be all that clear. In any case, the two wrestle all night long. At some point the stranger wrenches Jacob’s hip socket, but Jacob refuses to give in. Even as dawn alights, the struggle continues.

Finally admitting defeat, the mysterious being is forced to give Jacob a blessing. “You have struggled with men and divine beings and have prevailed,” says the spirit, and he bestows on Jacob a new name: Israel.

But Jacob’s struggles are far from over. He now has to face his brother a worse adversary—his brother Esau, who is coming towards him with four hundred armed men. Fearful for the safety of his family, Jacob cajoles, pleads and bribes Esau before the two finally part, each going his own way. This time bloodshed was avoided.

Sometime later, with Jacob and his family encamped outside Shechem, Dina, Jacob’s only daughter, wanders away from the camp. She is seen by the prince of the city, also named Shechem, who seizes and rapes her. Falling in love with the girl, Shechem sends his father to ask for Dina’s hand in marriage.

Jacob is silent, but his sons are enraged. Demanding that all the men of Shechem be circumcised, they wait for three days. Then two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, attack. They kill all the males of the city, who understandably are unable to defend themselves, and take all the women, children and possessions for themselves. Jacob is horrified by their actions, but he is silent when his sons retort: “Shall our sister be dealt with as a whore?”

Not long after this terrible incident, Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, dies as she gives birth to Benjamin.

Jacob has had to face life with all its unhappiness and suffering. Yet what he does next is a true testament to his inheritance and legacy: He returns to Bethel and builds an altar to God, reaffirming his faith in the God of his fathers.

In view of all his suffering, this act may be difficult to understand. When he left home years earlier, Jacob was bold enough to question God: “If you fulfill your promise to bring me back home safely,” he says in response to God’s promise of protection. “If.” It isn’t doubt or uncertainty that motivate him. It’s youthful arrogance.

Now, however, even though he is filled with fear and doubt, Jacob responds not with cynicism but rather with faith.

In rising above his personal tragedies (there is yet one more to come), Jacob shows his greatness. Past experience has taught him how to fend for himself. He learned when to fight and when to sue for peace, when to make alliances and when to set boundaries. He has learned that it’s possible to pick up the shattered pieces of life and carry on with one’s duties and responsibilities. He has learned how to draw blessings from even the most dire situations.

But possibly the most important lesson of all came after the terrible events at Shechem.

The rape of Dina was not only a personal act of violence. It was also an attack on the legitimacy of Jacob’s family and household.

Simeon and Levi reacted as people did in those brutal days. They defended their sister’s honor; they upheld and restored their family’s legitimacy and integrity.

And yet, they committed an atrocity.

Yes, “the fear of God” kept the family safe from further attacks, but for Jacob there was something much deeper at stake here. So far, his struggles had been with others. Now Jacob had to face his own conscience. Mass murder, no matter how some viewed it in those days, was unacceptable to him. Vengeance exacted on the guilty and innocent alike was something that to his core he believed was wrong. The lessons he learned as a child yet were to care for the weak, the sick and injured. What his sons had done was contrary to everything he ever believed.

In accepting the role of Israel, the father of a nation, Jacob agreed to follow higher standards of ethics and morality. That is why at this point in his life, despite all the tragedies—or perhaps because of them—he fulfills his vow. In Bethel, Jacob builds an altar to the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Sarah and Rebecca, the God of Israel.

In the last few weeks there have been many attacks on the life and legitimacy of Jacob’s progeny, the People of Israel. Terror has taken the lives of men, women and children throughout the Land of Israel. Yet, true to the teaching of Jacob, the State of Israel has acted in accordance with Jacob’s moral teachings.

I remember when, nearly 20 years ago, a terrorist blew himself up near Dizengoff Center, at the heart of Tel Aviv. Thirteen Israelis between the ages of 13 and 82 were killed in that terrible attack. I remember precisely where I was when I heard the news. I was a rabbinic student then, and I was sitting in the sanctuary of Hebrew Union College; it was the middle of morning services. I rushed out to call my family in Israel—thank God they were all safe. But when I returned to my seat in the sanctuary, I felt rage such as I had never felt before. I was shaking violently, to the point where a friend who was sitting next to me had to put his arm around me to calm me.

Though, somehow, services continued, my heart and soul were not in the prayers. Slowly, my rage dissipated. But it did not disappear; instead, it turned to hate. With all my heart and soul, I hated. This was the fourth such attack in nine days. In that span, 60 Israelis were killed by suicide murderers. I just couldn’t take it any more. Above all else at that moment I wanted revenge.

Yet even as I struggled with my emotions, something else arose from deep within me. It was an understanding, a lesson. Better than ever before, I truly understood why the Torah and the ancient rabbis forbade blood vengeance. It was Jacob’s lesson which at that moment resonated within my soul.

Israel’s raison d’etre, its cause and the foundation of its existence, is this moral lesson: That punishment must be restricted to the guilty; that mass retaliation is abhorrent in God’s eyes.

Terror strikes indiscriminately. Terrorists aim to spread pain, suffering and destruction as widely as possible. No matter how great our rage, however, we must not give in to the instincts that would drive us to respond in kind. To be Israel means that we set a different God before our eyes. Our God is a God of justice, not of revenge, of compassion and morality, not bloodlust and cruelty.

We do best homage to our patriarch Jacob when we follow this teaching. I only hope and pray that we and the rest of the civilized world will continue to follow it.