Hanukkah Night #7: The Miracle of Hope

Hanukkah began as a military holiday celebrating the capture and rededication of the Jerusalem Temple around 160 C.E. About 200 years later, however, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Some Jewish leaders of the period said Hanukkah should be abolished. Since the Temple was destroyed, why celebrate its rededication?

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The answer lay in the most profound Jewish idea: hope. While the Temple was destroyed, hope was not.

Hope is not blind optimism. It is faithfulness, confidence, and vision, combined with a determination to act. Hope has sustained the Jewish people through countless experiences of persecution and exile. Hope is the conviction that what was once destroyed can be rebuilt. 

Tonight let us praise the power of hope. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “The Jewish people kept hope alive, and hope kept the Jewish people alive.”

Hanukkah Night #6: The Miracle of Perspective

Jewish tradition does not permit the Hanukkah candles to be used for any productive purpose. They cannot, for example, be used for reading or illumination. They are simply to be enjoyed.

hanukkah light

Is this an example of legalism gone amuck? No. It is lesson about people. It is a lesson about perspective.

The Hanukkah lights are meant to be enjoyed and treasured for what they are, not what they can do for us. The same is true of people. They  are not means to an end. A friend is not a friend because they can do something for us. Every human being, created the image of God, is filled with inherent dignity we honor and treasure. 

Just as we look at the Hanukkah lights for what they are in themselves, not what they can do for us, so we look at people as who they are, not what they can do for us.

Hanukkah Night #5: The Miracle of Light

The Book of Job is one of the most mysterious and powerful books of the Bible. Job is blameless, yet he is struck with tragedy. When he asks God why, God refuses to answer. When Job’s friends suggest he did something wrong, God rejects them as well. We are left with no explanation.

We might read this story and come away depressed and angry. I read it with deep respect and admiration. The Bible does not try to gloss over the harshness of life in this world. It is not perfect.

The just do suffer. The world is not as it should be. God does not always tell us why.

Yet, the response to such truths is not give up. It is not to despair. It is to hope. It is to pray. It is to work. It is to light a candle. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Hanukkah Night #4: The Miracle of an Open Heart

Every Jewish holiday has special prayers associated with it. Usually the prayers are added to the section of the worship service known as the Amidah—that’s the middle part of the service. Hanukkah, however, is different.

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The special Hanukkah readings are added to the  prayer of thanksgiving, known as the Hoda-ot.

In linking Hanukkah and thanksgiving, the Jewish sages conveyed several important message. The first, as discussed earlier in the week, is to express gratitude for the miracle God performed 2000 years ago.

The second is more subtle. Gratitude requires openness, and prayer is a way of opening up our souls. If we are not open to God’s presence during prayer, how can we open to God’s miracles in everyday life? Hanukkah reminds us to open up our spirits.

Miracles do not only depend on God. They also depend on us.

Hanukkah Night #3: The Miracle of Peace

Tonight is both the third night of Hanukkah and the Jewish Sabbath. Which is more important? Well, If we were forced to choose, we would say the Sabbath, and the reason is stunningly beautiful. 

hanukkah hope

It rests in the Jewish understanding of peace. Consider the following hypothetical: It is the Sabbath, and you have only enough oil for one candle  How do you use it Do you light a Hanukkah candle or the Sabbath candle? According to the Jewish sages, you light the Sabbath candles

Why? The lights of Hanukkah remind us of war. The Sabbath symbolizes peace. Even though the war remembered by Hanukkah was one of the Jewish people’s greatest  victories, peace is our central concern.

As the greatest Jewish sage Maimonides put it, “Great is peace, for the whole Torah was given to promote peace in the world.”

Hanukkah Night #2: The Miracle of Thanksgiving

Tonight my cup truly runneth over. American and Jewish history were my two central areas of study in college. Tonight they converge. Hanukkah and Thanksgiving share an evening.

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While they are millennia apart and recount different stories, they share a resounding lesson: the power of gratitude.

On Hanukkah we give thanks for the sacrifices and faith of the ancient Jewish group known as the Maccabees. They fought for their freedom and saved the Temple in Jerusalem. We also give thanks to God for blessing the oil the Maccabees found in the Temple, and letting it burn for eight full days.

Like Hanukkah, Thanksgiving expresses gratitude for the sacrifices and faith of an ancient group. The Puritans withstood starvation and disease in the faith that they were building a New Israel in the New World.

Even as many suffered, they celebrated and gave thanks for the bounty of the land. Their gift remains our responsibility.

The Eight Miracles of Hanukkah

This evening begins the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is about the miracles God performed for the Israelites 2000 years ago. Miracles continue to surround us today.

Over the next eight days, we will learn about Hanukkah and grow in appreciation of the miracles of the past, present and future. If you want to learn more about Hanukkah and find some inspiration for the next week, subscribe to the blog or visit often!

Below is the first of eight short devotions.

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Night #1: The Miracle of Courage

According to Jewish legend, the holiday began when the Jewish rebels regained the Temple from the control of King Antiochus. A tiny jar of oil was discovered. The oil burned for eight days, and this miracle became the basis of an eight-day holiday of rejoicing and remembering.

Yet, something is odd. The miracle was that a tiny amount of oil—enough, perhaps, for one night—lasted for eight.

If this is so, then Hanukkah should only last seven night. The first night was not really a miracle, since we began with enough oil for it. Why, then, do we celebrate for eight?

The Real Miracle

I love the answer given the late Rabbi David Hartman. The miracle of the first night was that the Maccabees (Jewish rebels) lit the lamp at all.

They were uncertain whether it would last the eight days needed to complete the purification and rededication the Temple. Yet, they took a leap of faith, trusting in God’s power and promise. That is a miracle we can embrace every day.

 

 

The Dance of Ordinary Living

Last night I delivered a sermon at an interfaith Thanksgiving serviceThis poem, by my friend Rabbi Rami Shapiro, was especially moving.

Spirituality is living with attention.
Living with attention leads me to thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is the response I have
to the great debt I accrue with each breath I take.
Attending to the everyday miracles of ordinary living
I am aware of the interconnectedness of all things.
I cannot be without you.
This cannot be without that.
All cannot be without each.
And each cannot be without every.
Thanksgiving is not for anything.
It is from everything.
May I cultivate the attention
to allow the thanks that is life
To inform the dance that is living.fred and ginger

A Synagogue Remembers: 50 Years After the Death of JFK

A synagogue service after the death of JFKA synagogue service after the death of JFK

Many people remember where they were 50 years ago. In Highland Park, Illinois, many came to Congregation Solel, where I am now the rabbi.

In memory of our late President, I ventured into our synagogue archives, and found the following, which I hope will move our hearts, minds and souls.

Death is a Mystery

“The death of President Kennedy is a turning point in your life and mine. We shall never be quite the same as we were before November 22nd, and we must not. No notion of ours is quite so secure, no hope so firm, no knowing so resolute…

The mystery is not resolved in time. That is the nature of a mystery. Problems are solved at last, even great scientific puzzles. But mysteries only deepen. The meaningless death of the young prince cannot be explained or explained away. It continues to be the religious fact that it was at first, more awful and more mysterious every day.”

–Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf

Words Are Not Enough

“Dear God, we know the words are not enough—but let our coming together in common grief to pray for John Kennedy, bring us to a new dimension, a dimension beyond ourselves.

Help us to continue to reach out to one another, and in so doing, come to that state of selflessness that is the truth of love… Free us, O God, from the prison of ourselves—and show us that this inner freedom will be an ecstasy of the spirit, a miracle of the soul. Teach us, that in our souls there lives the need to love.”

–Personal Prayer Delivered by Congregant Irving Hanig

May our late President’s memory always be for a blessing.

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