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Why Hanukkah – Which Interpretation Works for You?

Sermon by Rabbi Jim Prosnit – November 30, 2018

Why Hanukkah – Which Interpretation Works for You?

If I were to ask the kids in our religious school what their favorite Jewish Holiday was I would bet that most all would say Hanukkah.  A few might like the family connections around the seder table at Passover and one or two architecturally minded youths might think the construction of the sukkah to be cool – but I would assume that the presence of presents at this season lures most to their more materialistic instincts and – the spiritual in all likelihood gives way to the prospects of new stuff! 

As most all of you know, however, gift giving on Hanukkah is not deeply rooted in our tradition.  It was in quite clearly a response in the last century to American Jews living in a non-Jewish culture that came to imbue Christmas with a gift giving mentality.  Last week’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday have certainly transformed the birth of a savior into an economic bonanza for all sorts of our nation’s retailers.

Jewish parents didn’t want to deny their precious darlings the gifts that their neighbors were receiving so the competition began.  We get presents for 8 nights – not just one day!

Now of course the hanukkah season can’t compete with Christmas and it shouldn’t.  Christmas is primary in Christian doctrine and sacrament and Hanukkah a minor Jewish holiday – celebrating a military victory in the 2nd century BCE.  We’ve tried to spiritualize it with stories of oil burning unexpectedly for 8 days – but even that miracle – a minor one to be certain pales against the religious significance of Christmas.  The 8 days connected more to the 8 day festival of Sukkot that the Jews couldn’t observe few months earlier because they were busy fighting a war with the Syrians.  When the war ended they instituted a belated sukkot festival at this time of year that then became an annual 8 day ritual of remembrance/rededication – a festival of lights or Hanukkah.

In Talmudic times – back in the 4 or 5th century – the rabbis weren’t even sure what this was all about.  In a section of the Talmud on how to light Sabbath candles someone asked about how to light Hanukkah candles.  And some of the rabbis said, Mai Hanukkah – what is Hannukah? 

They went on to discuss where to place a Hannukah menorah – and how to light it!  Hillel first night 1- increasing to 8 or Shammai first night 8-decreasing to 1.  We obviously know who won the debate – but the uncertainty in the 5th century some 600 years after the story of the Maccabees defeating the Syrian Greeks – makes it clear to me that this Holiday we begin on Sunday evening is not among the two most sacred in our tradition.

So then – as we anticipate this festival – how may we best celebrate and make meaning from the story.

The ways we do are very much related to who we are.  We interpret Chanukah in own image.   For us there are a number of obvious contenders.  For American Jews it is most often about religious freedom from tyrants.  For Israelis it is about routing the armies of a dominating empire and winning back Jewish sovereignty.  The triumph of the few over the many.  For traditional Jews it is about a fight against assimilation.  It seems that read one way, the Maccabees offer a story about freedom fighters casting off religious oppression.  Read another way, it’s a story about religious extremists slaughtering their assimilationist neighbors.  More spiritual seeking/renewal Jews take another path and read the story allegorically as a story about seeking one’s inner life and rededicating oneself to that small burning candle.  Nurturing holy sparks, kindling light in the darkness:  these take on profound spiritual meaning when we remember that light is associated with chesed, God’s abundant loving kindness — and that the first thing created, at the beginning of time, was (spiritual/metaphysical) light.  Our task is to purify our hearts so that divine light can shine in and through us.

So indeed, every generation asks what the Rabbis ask when they open their short conversation on the holiday… “Mai Chanukah?” — What is Chanukah?

Here’s one more – especially in the wake of this week’s Climate report that has some disturbing news for the planet.  And it comes by way of another Talmudic debate.

What type of oil shall we use in lighting the Hanukkah lamps – the rabbis asked?

R. Joshua b. Levi said:  All oils are fit for the Hanukkah lamp, but olive oil is of the best.  Abaye a fellow member of the group jumped up and observed:  At first the Master [Rabbah] used to seek poppy-seed oil, saying, because it burns slowly and the light of this is more lasting; but when Abaye heard this teaching of R. Joshua b. Levi, he was particular for olive oil, saying, This  yields a clearer light.

According to the story, poppy seed oil is the most economical choice.  Slower burning; longer lasting –therefore it saved money.  Yet faced with the choice between lower costs or achieving lucidity, the Talmud tells us to choose the cleaner, clearer, olive oil.  Even at higher costs it seems the rabbis of old chose to pursue a healthier energy policy. 

My students have learned that so much in Torah – and so much in our own understanding of traditions live on in our best effort interpretations – May you find one’s right for you in the season ahead.