Tuesday, December 24, 2019

It's Not the Oil - Hanukkah

Just the other day someone wanted to know why we would teach in the religious school that the miracle of Hanukkah might not actually be the oil that lasts for eight days.  Isn’t that the most important part?  What else could be the reason if not that for having the holiday? 
I hate to break it to you, and this might not be what you get into with your kids who are younger than 10 or 11 or so, but I don’t think there was a miracle with the oil last eight days.  Nevertheless, I do believe Hanukkah is an important holiday to celebrate with an important message to learn.
Now why do I think what I do?  First, if you read through I and II Maccabees (books in the Apocrypha, a collection of biblical style books written after the canon of the Hebrew Bible was already closed but still religiously significant and included in the Catholic Bible), which were written during the time when the Maccabees were rulers of Israel, there is no mention of the miracle with the oil.  That is to say, in accounts that were written either right during the time of the Hanukkah story or not long after, they don’t know anything about “super oil.” 
Furthermore, when we say the addition to the Amidah prayer for Hanukkah Al ha-Nissim, or when we read the passage Ha-Nerot Hallalu recited after lighting the menorah candles, neither of these prayers mention magic oil either. 
It is not until the Talmud, edited together around 450CE that we encounter the story of the lights.  The events of Hanukkah happened around 150BCE and so we are talking about six hundred years between the two events.  And even those early parts of the Talmud are still separated from the time of the Maccabean Revolt by more than hundred years.  A nice story to be sure, but not one that rings with the note of historical accuracy. 
So why then do we a light a menorah at all?  I suspect it is because the Maccabees really did restore the Holy Temple after they defeated the Seleucid Greeks, and the menorah was a key symbol of the Temple, so incorporating it into the celebrations the held for their victory made sense.   And I think they made Hanukkah an eight-day holiday (the Temple menorah has six branches plus one central light) because that fit better with other important holidays like Sukkot and Passover, and the Maccabees felt their victory worthy of a similarly long celebration.
The miracle of Hanukkah then, the one we read about in the Books of Maccabees, the one we mention in our additional prayers including the candle blessings, the one even the Talmud acknowledges, is the faith of the Maccabees that their dedication to Judaism could help them prevail of the Greeks.  And despite their smaller numbers, despite even the fact that even some of the Maccabees were themselves Hellenized Jews, their commitment to Jewish tradition, their hope and bravery, that is what we truly celebrate.
When you light the candles this year, make sure that lesson is a part of what you celebrate and remember.  And after we put the menorah away, remember that just as the light of Hanukkah grows stronger every night of the holiday, so too, can our faith and courage during difficult times, helping us to prevail against those who might seek our harm, and see Jewish life and relevance survive and thrive.    

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Towards Hanukkah

Parshat Vayeshev, Looking Towards Hanukkah: On Hanukkah, we are required to light candles, and the rabbis are very specific that it not be a torch, that they not be all over but lined up, that basically, each candle be uniquely its own contribution to the menorah, and to pirsumei nissah, to the command to “advertise the miracle” of Hanukkah.
And when you think about it, that is what Hanukkah itself is about. It’s about the Jews saying, “no, we won’t assimilate and disappear – we have something unique to us to contribute to the tapestry of humanity. We have a special job to play in God’s world, and we aren’t going to go away or become just like everyone else.”
The lesson of Hanukkah is a lesson to teach you to be uniquely you. To embrace the things that make you who you are. As it is taught, a human king will stamp coins and they all come out with the same image stamped on them. God however, stamps the “coins” of each human being with God’s Spirit and in so doing, each coin comes out unique. You are, by being yourself an important part of God’s plan for creation.
This is a lesson for the family and our community – that there are some people who are blessed with the skills of leadership, with a talent for building up the community, and if you’re one of those people then you are called upon to contribute your unique blessing to the betterment of the community.
Finally, Hanukkah reminds us of another lesson involving light, which is also the lesson of being a Jew in the greater world – that we have a job, to be an ohr l’goyim, a light to the world, of how to live in a holy, godly way. Do your part in lighting the way of Judaism in our world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Parshat VaYishlach, Deceiving Yourself

Parshat VaYishlach, Deceiving Yourself - Is your view of reality accurate?  Today we talk about “fake news” and how the unique experiences of people may make it hard to understand them and their challenges.  But what happens when you have the wrong picture of things? Can that be?
The Prophet Obadiah in the haftarah addresses this.  Speaking about the Edomites a related tribe to the Jews who failed to aide them in their time of need he says:
Z’don libcha hishi-echa, “your heart has deceived you [to do bad things]”
Later, in talking about how the Edomites are “going to get it” he says, hi’shi’ucha yachlu lecha anshe sh’lomecha, “they’ve deceived you, your supporters [and now you’ll be defeated without them]”
Through the use of “deceiving” in both places, the Prophet Obadiah tells us something, and not just about the Edomites, but for us now.
What Obadiah wants to tell us is don’t deceive yourself about what’s right and about doing the right thing.
Surround yourself by the wrong people, let their words and actions deceive you as to the right things, as to the nature of reality itself, and you will face the repercussions.  
And how do we know what is “right?”  Obadiah’s criticism of Edom in a moment of crisis, they ignored those in need, those who should have been important to them.  
We must constantly ask ourselves if our views and perceptions are leading us to shun and ignore those we should help.  If we find ourselves increasingly seeing people as “other” and unworthy of our concern, we may just be deceiving ourselves.  
Shabbat Shalom 
Rabbi Benson

Thursday, December 5, 2019

VaYetze, Holy Self Criticism

VaYetzeHoly Self Criticism:
Leah was mistreated by Jacob. And more than that, by Jewish tradition. And even by our own Conservative Movement who in the official version of the imahot addition includes her after Rachel even though she married Jacob first and the order is seemingly first to last.

And while we’re at it, I believe Laban and Jacob treated each other poorly. Laban more so than Jacob, but all the same, neither man comes away looking all that great.

And fundamentally I take issue with the fact that Jacob could be the husband, or master, really, to four women – two wives and two concubines. And I believe that the Takkannah of Rebbenu Gershom in 1000 CE was correct to ban the reprehensible practice in Judaism though the Torah most clearly allows it.

And it’s my belief that just about all of you will agree with me that Jacob has his warts showing in the Torah’s depiction of him, that Leah did likely have a sad existence and that polygamy is bad.

All things that we can all agree are wrong with our religion, or at least wrong with our religious texts. None of us would deny that there are issues with Judaism when it comes to these things.

And when Jews have committed crimes here in the States or anywhere for that matter, we should speak out strongly against such attacks and criticize ourselves that such hatred or evil, such wrongdoing could exist in our midst.

It might be the subject of jokes – such “Jewish guilt” but it is also a source of great strength within Judaism as well. We are even taught in Leviticus 19:17 to chastise our fellow Jews who seeks to do wrong.

For we are a family, a team, as it were, and that the whole team helps or hurts in the success or failure of the greater whole.

It is perhaps in this way that we are meant to be an or lagoyim, “a light unto the nations.” Not by having the most Nobel Prize winners or best comedians but rather because we have lifted up self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-criticism to be religious ideals.