Theodor Herzl’s Menorah – Chanukah 5776

If you ask most Jewish kids in America what their favorite holiday is, they’ll say Chanukah.  From a religious standpoint, it is not really that important of a holiday.  In Israel, Chanukah is really not that big of a deal, certainly when compared to the other Jewish holidays.  It got to be this way here in America because of its proximity to a certain other non-Jewish holiday.  “The Jewish Christmas” and all that.

At least, that is the typical complaint made by Rabbis lamenting the over-commercialization of Chanukah.

But maybe this is not such a uniquely American experience.

I came across a story written over one hundred years ago at a transitional moment in Jewish history.  A story that is as relevant  today as it was then.

HerzlTheodor Herzl, who would later become the father of modern Zioinism, is a secular Jewish journalist from Austria.  He is putting the finishing touches on his book Der Judenstaat – The Jewish State, earning him some notoriety.  He has developed a relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, who has become a good friend and advisor.  One day Rabbi Gudemann comes to Herzl’s home to discuss the forthcoming publication.  Rabbi Gudemann is shocked by what he finds.  Later that day, Herzl writes about it in his journal.  It is December 24, 1895.

I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when Gudemann arrived. He seemed upset by the “Christian” custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured!  But I don’t mind if they call it the Hannukah tree–or the winter solstice.

Two years later, Herzl is living in Paris and reporting on the Dreyfus Affair.  The rampant antisemitism shakes him to his core and leads him to abandon his earlier assimilationist positions.  Herzl concludes that the only solution for the Jewish people is to have a homeland of their own, along with a re-embracing of Judaism.  With this realization, Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress, and modern Zionism is born.

In December 1897, Herzl writes a short story entitled “The Menorah” which appears in the journal Die Welt, a weekly newspaper that he has recently begun publishing to promote Zionism.  The following is a paraphrased summary of Herzl’s story, utilizing some of his language.  (The full text of the story can be read here.)

Deep in his soul, he began to feel the need to be a Jew.  His circumstances were not unsatisfactory; he enjoyed ample income and a profession that permitted him to do whatever his heart desired.  For he was an artist.

Of course, Herzl is writing about himself.  He goes on to describe a thoroughly assimilated European Jew of the late nineteenth century.  When antisemitism rears its head, this enlightened Jew assumes that it will fade just as quickly.  But it does not, and his soul begins to wear down.

He begins to think of his Judaism.  Despite its alienness, he begins to love it intensely.  Gradually, his yearning crystalizes into a conviction that he must return to Judaism.  His closest friends think he is crazy, ridiculing him behind his back and even laughing in his face.  But he is indifferent to their sneers.

As an artist of the modern school and a man of the senses, he has embraced many non-Jewish habits and ideas.  How can he reconcile this modernity with his return to Judaism?  Doubt plagues him.  Perhaps it is too late for his generation, which has become so heavily influenced by alien cultures.  But the next generation, if it is trained in the proper path, will be able to make the return.

Until then, the artist has allowed the holiday of the Maccabees to pass by unobserved.  Now, however, he makes this holiday an opportunity to prepare something beautiful which should be forever commemorated in the minds of his children.

… He buys a Menorah, and when he holds the nine-branched candlestick in his hands for the first time, a strange mood overcomes him.  He grows nostalgic and sad when he recalls the memory of burning lights in his father’s house.

But the tradition is neither cold nor dead, he realizes.  It has passed through the ages, one light kindling another.

The artist begins to think about where the shape of the Menorah came from.  He sees in it the form of a tree: branches emerging from a central trunk to the right and the left, all ending at the same height.  Then the ninth branch projects to the front to play the role of shamash, servant to the others.

What mysterious meanings have previous generations passed down to the next about this simple, natural shape.  He imagines that he might be able to water this withered tree and restore it to life.  He joyfully recites its name to his children – Menorah – and delights in hearing it repeated back to him out of their mouths.

He lights the candle on the first night and tells his children what little he knows about the origin of the holiday.  The wonderful incident of the lights that strangely remained burning so long, the story of the return from the Babylonian exile, the second Temple, the Maccabees – our friend tells his children all that he knows.  It is not very much, to be sure, but it serves.

The next night, with the second candle, the artist’s children repeat back to him the stories that he had told them the night before.  Even though the stories are the same, they seem to him to be new and beautiful.

Each subsequent night is brighter than the previous.  The artist muses on the little candles with his children until the profundity becomes too deep for him to share.

When he first resolved to return to his people, he thought simply that he was doing an honorable and rational thing.  He never dreamed that he would find something that satisfied his yearning for beauty.  Yet that is what he found.

After the holiday, he sketches out a plan for a new Menorah to present to his children the following year.  The artist is searching for living beauty, so he does not limit himself to the strict traditional form of the Menorah.  Yet his design still takes form as a tree with slender branches.

The following year, he lights the Menorah with his children, the light increasing.  On the eighth night, a great splendor streams from the Menorah.  The children’s eyes glisten.  For our friend, all this is the symbol of the kindling of a nation.  When there is but one light, all is still dark, and the solitary light looks melancholy.  Soon, it finds one companion, then another, and another.  The darkness must retreat.

The light comes first to the young and the poor – then others join them who love Justice, Truth, Liberty, Progress, Humanity, and Beauty.

When all the candles burn, then we must all stand and rejoice over the achievements.  And no office can be more blessed than that of a Servant – a shamash – of the Light.

What a change!  In just two years, Herzl is transformed from a father casually lighting up a Christmas tree for his children to a Jew finding profound beauty and meaning in the kindling of the Menorah.  Such a tremendous inspiration.  What a legacy he has left us!

Chag Urim Sameach.  Happy Festival of Lights.

Happy Thanksgivukkah

It shouldn’t be news to anyone with a pulse that the first day of Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving this year.  What do we call it?  Someone actually trademarked the word Thanksgivukkah ®.  So we could try Thanukkah.  Or how about Chanksgiving?

A lot has been written about the culinary options made possible by the coinciding of two gastronomically-rich holiday traditions.

It probably should not surprise us that some folks have cashed-in.  This is America after all, where there is nothing than cannot be turned into a business opportunity.  You can buy Thanksgivukkah greeting cards, t-shirts, songs on iTunes, and so on.  Then, there is the nine year old boy who designed the “Menurkey” and raised almost $50,000 on Kickstarter to get it produced.

On deeper inspection, it turns out that there is more than just a date that ties Chanukkah and Thanksgiving together.

First, the date.  The Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar hybrid.  The months follow the cycle of the moon, but in order to ensure that the holidays occur in the right seasons, we have to add occasional “leap-months.”  Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis came up with the system that we use today.  There is a nineteen year cycle in which we add a thirteenth month during seven out of every nineteen years.  That keep Passover in the Spring, the High Holidays in the Fall, and Chanukkah in the Winter.

The earliest possible date for Chanukkah is November 28.  The latest possible date for Thanksgiving is November 28.  This year, those dates happen to coincide.  The last time they coincided was 1861, but Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until Lincoln declared it in 1863.  That makes this year the first time it has ever happened and, as it turns out, the last time it will happen for approximately the next 77,000 years.

When they set up the calendar. the Rabbis were remarkably accurate, but not totally.  Averaged out, The Jewish year is a touch longer than the solar year of 365.25 days.  Every one thousand years, the two calendars diverge by four days.  The last year that Chanukkah will occur on November 28 is in the year 2146, but on none of the occasions between now and then will the 28th be a Thursday.  After 2146, the calendar divergence will make the earliest possible date for Chanukkah November 29.  It will take 77,000 years to work its way around the calendar, unless something is done.  That “something” will require a bunch of Rabbis to get together to agree on how to adust the Jewish calendar so that the holidays remain in the correct season.  And if that happens, it will truly be a “miracle.”  I don’t expect it to take place any time in my rabbinic career.

But there is more that connects these two holidays than just the date.  Much of the thematic convergence occurs through the relationship of these two holidays to a third Jewish holiday: Succot.

Let’s talk about Thanksgiving first.  The first recorded Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in Plymouth Rock after the first successful harvest by the Pilgrims who had just arrived that year.  They had come to America from Europe to flee religious persecution.  They were searching for a new home in which they could practice their faith in freedom.  First-hand accounts report that the meal was attended by fifty three Pilgrims and approximately ninety members of the Wampanoag tribe.

These were deeply religious people who read their Bibles closely.  They knew all about the Torah’s harvest festivals, in which Israelites marked the beginning and end of the agricultural cycle through celebrations of gratitude.  While they might not have literally modelled that first Thanksgiving on Succot, the idea of celebrating a successful harvest in the fall through a sacred meal was deeply rooted in their religious consciousness.  For the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving was a religious holiday with Biblical precedents.  For modern-day Americans who have inherited this holiday, the meaning of Thanksgiving is very much about religious freedom, the fall harvest, and gratitude.

These are themes that are shared with Chanukkah.  The Maccabees in Israel had similar experiences to the Pilgrims in Europe.  A dominating Syrian Greek empire offered extremely attractive alternatives to traditional Jewish practice.  Not only was assimilation widespread, the Greeks sought to forcibly impose their culture by outlawing some of the most important Jewish practices like Shabbat, Torah study, and circumcision.  They also took over the Temple, offering pagan sacrifices at the most important place of Jewish worship.  This is the first time in recorded human history that an attempt was made to eradicate a particular culture and religion.  It is the first record of attemped genocide.

It was working.  Jews were abandoning the Torah and embracing Greek ways of life.  In 167 BCE, the Maccabees revolted.  They fought to  undo the decrees and reestablish Jewish control in Israel.  When they recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple in 164 BCE, the Maccabees declared a celebration to give thanks to God.  It is not surprising that they would want to do this.  Most successful independence movements have an Independence Day.  Let’s look at how the Maccabees chose to celebrate their victory, in their own words.  The Second Book of Maccabees, written in 124 BCE, describes the first Chanukkah.

They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So carrying lulavs… they offered hymns of praise (Hallel) to God who had brought to pass the purification of His own place. (II Maccabees 10:6-7)

The victorious Maccabees, by their own account, modeled Chanukkah after Succot.  It is a particularly appropriate holiday for a few reasons.  Succot is not only an autumn agricultural holiday celebrating the completion of a successful summer harvest.  It also has an historical dimension.  The succot that we dwell in symbolize the temporary dwelling places that our ancestors used during their wanderings in the wilderness, during the time of their escape from slavery into freedom.  Succot symbolizes religious freedom.

Succot is also connected to the dedication of the Temple.  When Solomon completed the construction of the first Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem, he inaugurated it during an eight-day celebration that coincided with Succot.  We will read about it in the haftarah next week.

King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month… for God had said, ‘I have built a House for My eternal residence.’  (I Kings 8:2,12)

For Solomon, Succot did not symbolize impermanence and vulnerability.  In fact, it was exactly the opposite.  Succot was about the establishment of a new, permanent home for God.

When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, it made sense on several levels to model their celebration after Succot.  First of all, they had missed Succot three months earlier.  And secondly, Succot was a tremendous precedent to use for a rededication ceremony for the Temple.  Succot, therefore, serves as a bridge that connects Chanukkah and Thanksgiving, regardless of when they happen to occur on the calendar.  Both holidays express themes of gratitude – for a successful harvest, for religious freedom, and for home.

Another reason for which I am grateful that Chanukkah is so early this year is that it means it is as far away from Christmas as possible.  Chanukkah and Christmas have absolutely nothing in common, and it is so unfortunate that so many elements of Christmas observance in America have been assimilated into Chanukkah.

This year’s earliness of Chanukkah offers a reprieve from the intensity of the commercialization of the holiday.  In contrast, while Thanksgiving has succumbed to commercialism to some degree, it seems to me that, more than any other national holiday, it is the one that is still observed in a meaningful way by the widest number of people.  Americans of all religious and cultural backgrounds really do express gratitude on Thanksgiving.  I would much rather have a Chanukkah influenced by Thanksgiving than by Christmas.

This year, we are blessed to be able to celebrate these two holidays on the same day:  The Festival of Lights, celebrating the Jewish people’s survival against religious persecution; and the festival of Thanksgiving, expressing the gratitude that people of all backgrounds, and of all religions, can enjoy the blessings of our great country

To all of us: Happy Thanksgivukkah!

The Miracle of the First Night – Chanukah 5773

Imagine that you were with the Maccabees. You have been fighting for three years against the Greeks for religious freedom, for the rights of Jews living in their homeland to practice their religion and customs according to their ancient traditions. Finally, you and your fellow soldiers have recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem. As you walk through the ruined and defiled grounds, you see the refuse of idolatrous sacrifices polluting the sacred space. The holiest items: the altar, the special table that stood outside the Holy of Holies, and the menorah, the seven branched candelabrum, are strewn about, shattered and soiled.

It is time now to reinstate the way of life that you have been fighting for these past three years, to rededicate the Temple. Time to reinstitute the daily worship of God. First and foremost among those rituals, the daily lighting of the menorah.

But there is a problem. You need fuel – oil. And not just any oil will do. You need special, purified olive oil to do it properly, but there is none to be found. There is, however, lots of defiled oil. Large open vats of it, in fact.

So now you are faced with a dilemma. What to do? You could just get some of the defiled oil and use that. After all, getting the menorah lit and starting up the sacrifices is the main point, isn’t it? Why not just use the regular stuff for the time being?

But that will not do. What have you been fighting for these past three years? For your ancient laws and traditions. No. It must be done properly. We cannot compromise our standards.

So you and your fellows begin to look around among the refuse. After hours of searching, a child runs up, excited, clutching a container of oil. The wax seal is embossed with the symbol of the High Priest, indicating that the olive oil inside is pure, and fit for Temple use.

This small discovery raises another dilemma. There is enough oil to light the daily offering once. But it is going to take at least another week before more purified oil can be prepared. You could use this oil, but you will face the exact same situation again tomorrow. The rededication of the Temple will fizzle out after only a day.

Someone speaks up with a rational proposal. “Why bother lighting a flame that is bound to burn out before the Temple is rededicated? Let’s wait a week for the olive oil presses to ramp up production. Then, we’ll have all the fuel we need. We can start up the daily offerings without having to worry about what to do tomorrow. It’s been three years. What is one more week?”

But that is not what you decide to do. You light the menorah on the spot – right then and there. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. There are no guarantees. But right now, in this imperfect moment, when we have no assurance that we will be able to complete the rededication of the Temple, we can take advantage of the opportunities before us, and light the lights.

So that is what you do. The soldiers gather around, and watch as the newly instated priest breaks open the seal on the jar of oil, fills the cups in the menorah, and kindles the flame.

You are probably familiar with the miracle that comes next. After one day, the light still burns. It continues to burn, defying everyone’s expectations, for seven additional days. Finally, a new batch of oil is ready, and the daily offerings can continue.

So what is the miracle of Chanukkah? That the small amount of oil, which was only enough for one day, burned for eight days? That is what we are taught. But truth be told, it’s kind of weak.

The Rabbis ask a question. Technically, the miracle only lasted from days 2 through 8. Perhaps, therefore, if Chanukkah is meant to celebrate the miracle of the oil, it should only be celebrated for seven days. There was no miracle on the first day, because there was enough oil.

Rabbi David Hartman suggests that “the miracle of the first day was expressed in the community’s willingness to light a small cruse of oil without reasonable assurance that their efforts would be sufficient to complete the rededication of the Temple.”*1*

In fact, that is the real miracle. We tell the story of Chanukkah, and we just kind of rush through our explanations of the oil burning seven days longer than it should. But for the Maccabees who had to make the decision about what to do, they were stepping out into the unknown.

They acted, even though there was no guarantee of success, no sure knowledge of how things would turn out in the end.

Miracles require human agency. They require courageous decisions by committed people who are not assured of a positive outcome.

Most of us, when considering whether to undertake an action whose completion is not guaranteed, tend to not start. That is the rational approach, after all. Why waste the effort?

But sometimes, the decision to act, especially when the outcome is unknown, leads us down new, unexpected paths, and opens doors that we could have never foreseen.

That is the miracle of the first day of Chanukkah. That this ragtag group of Maccabees took advantage of the opportunities that were presented to them in that moment, in the form of a small vessel of oil. “The Hanukkah lamp burned for eight days because of those who were prepared to have it burn for only one day.”*2* Their action opened doors for future miracles. Not just the miracle of the oil. But the miracle of Jewish independence, and ultimately, the miracle of Jewish survival for the next two thousand years, until the present day.

Like the small vessel of oil that, overcoming all logic, refused to burn out, we the Jewish people, who have always been small, have stubbornly held on to our way of life no matter what opposition we faced. And here we are today. The miracle of Jewish survival is a product of our people’s willingness, through the generations, to step out boldly into the unknown even though the future was uncertain.

But we do not need to look only to the grand sweep of history to find this. We face it every day. How often do we not act because the outcome is uncertain, or because we think our actions are futile? For example: The persistence of poverty, in the poorest countries of the world as well as in our own city, is so overwhelming that it seems like no action that we take could make a dent. Many of us choose inaction, excusing ourselves with the knowledge that nothing we do will make an impact.

If there is a lesson from our tradition, and especially from Chanukkah, it is that we never know what the future will hold. Offering up an unknown outcome as an excuse for present complacency is just laziness. We have to be Maccabees, who responded to the opportunities that the moment presented.

Tonight, we light the first flame of Chanukkah. Fortunately, for us, Chanukkah candles come in boxes of 44, just enough to get us through eight days. But as we light that first flame, let us go back to the original Chanukkah, when the future was uncertain and the present demanded us to be courageous, and stand up for our ideals and our way of life. Let us light the first light.

*1*David Hartman, “Trusting in a New Beginning,” in A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration, ed. Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, p. 195.

*2*Ibid, p. 196.