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Vayeshev: December 1, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

There is a meme that has been going around for a long time that attempts to simplify Jewish History. Rather than memorize the names of the holidays, remember the ritual items needed for the holiday and look up the foods we need to eat, all one needs to remember is “They attacked us, we won, lets eat!” Maybe with the exception of Yom Kippur, we can use this on almost any Jewish holiday, including Hanukah, which begins Sunday night.

I hope that I don’t need to tell you that Hanukah is NOT the Jewish Christmas. Hanukah became a holiday because of the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks. The small band of soldiers raided and wore down the larger Greek army until they recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple there. The very name, Hanukah, comes from Hanukat HaBayit, the dedication of the Temple after it was defiled by the Greeks.

Hanukah is not without its controversy either. First of all, the Syrian Greek army was supported by Jews who felt that it was better to assimilate into Greek culture. Judaism seemed old fashioned and obsolete. They were just as happy worshipping Greek gods in the Temple, (even if it did bear a strong resemblance to Syrian King Antiochus IV) and if they had to give up circumcision, well, perhaps it was time to stop that as well. It was the Temple priests, especially Mattathias, who rallied the traditionalists and the pious to rebel against the Greeks as well as the Assimilationists. 

When the war was over, this priestly family, the Hasmoneans, declared themselves priests and kings of the Jewish State. This was also quite new. Most of the time the priests were nominated by the Jewish king of the state. The dynasty did not do very well either. There were deadly arguments with the Rabbis. There were palace intrigues. The later Hasmonean kings adopted Greek names and flirted with Greek Culture. When two Hasmonean brothers fought a civil war to see who was to be king, the Romans were called in to mediate the dispute and eventually they just threw both of the brothers out and ruled the country themselves. The descendants of the Maccabees brought about their own downfall and left the country open to Rome and the eventual destruction of the second Temple.

If this is not a pretty picture you can go back, if you like to: “They attacked us, we won, let’s eat” but there is another twist in this story. The Rabbis who lived after the Hasmonean fiasco decided that they didn’t want to give the family credit for Hanukah. The Talmud suddenly comes up with a story of a miracle of oil, a day’s supply that lasts for 8 days. (On Facebook it is compared to your cell phone being at 10% and yet lasting 8 days without recharging). It is that story of the oil that that gives us the candle lighting of the holiday, the latkes and the sufganiyot. It is a miracle of God, not a victory of the Hasmonean family. The Rabbis got just what they wanted.

But the Talmud goes back even farther in trying to understand Hanukah, all the way back to the first human being, Adam, living in the Garden of Eden. As the year went by, he noticed the days getting shorter and shorter. He had no idea why this was happening. Adam figured the sun was getting lazy or something, so he started lighting fires to remind the sun to come back. And after a few days, it worked! Adam later understood that the changing length of the days was all part of the natural order but he continued to light fires around the winter solstice to remind the sun to come back. Our lighting candles in the dead of winter is a remnant of those first fires.

One more important point; there is a tradition to give gifts on Hanukah that goes back long before there was a Christmas. It was not about massive toy purchases; that is mostly the work of American Capitalism; but the nuts and raisins used in dreidel games and Hanukah gelt all go back almost to the beginning of Hanukah. What we end up with is a very minor holiday; there are not work or rest restrictions on the day, where we just enjoy ourselves, with food, with games and with candles to celebrate the miracle of the season. That the weak defeated the strong, that the oil lasted for eight days and that light will come back to the world; who can complain about eight happy days?

Yet there is still one aspect of this holiday that is important as we enter the holiday. The teachers of Ayeka, a website dedicated to soulful Jewish living, found a meaning for Hanukah that was just impossible to ignore. They noted that Hanukah is the last Jewish holiday to be created until modern times, when we started to celebrate important dates in Israel’s history. From the time of Hanukah, around the second century BCE until 1948, a span of more than 2000 years, there were no new Jewish holidays.

And those years were not very good for the Jews. During that time the Second Temple was destroyed, and the Jews went into exile. They were victims of oppression by Rome, the Catholic Church, and almost every European government. Our people wandered without a home and without anyone to protect us. There were good times in some countries but eventually it came to an end and we were forced into exile again.  The Middle Ages were very dark indeed for the Jews and even in modern times, with the rise of anti-Semitism and eventually the Holocaust, the years of our diaspora were cruel.

But the last gift to sustain us was the holiday of Hanukah. The last gift before our exile was this simple holiday. A holiday that talks about miracles. God gave us these eight nights to let us know that miracles can happen. God does intervene in history. God had not abandoned us in our exile. We learned from Hanukah, that God did not leave us in darkness, that there is always a tiny vessel of light.

So this Hanukah, after the candles are lit, the gifts opened, the latkes eaten and while we wait for the last of the candles to burn out, take some time to think about some questions about your life. Ask these soulful questions from Ayeka to give a deeper meaning to your Hanukah celebration:

First, ask yourself if you can remember a time when you actually witnessed a miracle or maybe even been a part of a miracle. You don’t have to find great events like the parting of the Red Sea or the Exodus from Egypt. Think about the times when you were so worried about something terrible that you were sure would happen and then, at the last moment, you were saved from disaster. Who would have thought that thousands of people would come together and march in this country for civil rights? Think about a time when someone stood up for justice, maybe it was you, and against all odds, we won our case. Maybe it was a flower that survived a sudden frost, so you could give it to someone you love. There is no telling where you can find miracles if you look for them.

The second question is to consider the difference between big miracles and small miracles. Perhaps it is like the story of the man throwing starfish who had washed up on a beach during a storm, back into the ocean to save their lives. Maybe it is not possible to save them all but it sure makes a difference to the ones saved. Maybe what we consider a small miracle is really quite big for someone else. Maybe a big miracle for us is very small to someone else. Candles burning for eight days may not sound like much but it continued to inspire our people in their darkest days.

Finally, it only takes one candle to push back the darkness. What small steps can we each do to bring more spiritual light into our lives? We don’t have to save the world all at once. We don’t have to protest for justice for immigrants, for victims of gun violence or on behalf of the homeless. We can do other small things for others. The sages teach that one should perform a small mitzvah the same way one would do a large one since the reward is not known. Give a ride to a doctor’s office for someone sick. Hold the hand of someone buried in their grief over the death of a loved one. When you see someone struggling with something, lend them a hand. Even the smallest effort can bring light into the world. What small steps can we do to light just one candle in the darkness?

Hanukah is a happy time, but it is also a time when we should take the lessons of the miracles of this season and think about what we can do to so that we too can bring light to the darkness. Candles may not burn very long but remember, just one shammas can light all the other lights of the holiday. We will be lighting our Hanukiya on the street in front of BSBI every night at 6:30 pm and everyone is free to join us on any and all nights. (It will be at 3:45 on Friday before Shabbat). Come sing with us and help us spread the light. Perhaps it will bring greater light to all the world. You never know…

May you have a joyful Hanukah and may it leave you inspired, as we say… Amen, Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameach – a happy Festival of Lights.


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, December 1, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779