At services we not only celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah but presented our fourth graders with their very own prayerbooks. What follows is the sermon I delivered marking this special occasion.
It is interesting that Shabbat Hanukkah nearly always coincides with Parshat Miketz, this week’s Torah portion about Joseph and his brothers. Here is why I find this coincidence so intriguing.
The very first Hanukkah was quite different than our own. As you know centuries ago the Maccabees fought a three year struggle against the mighty Syrian-Greek army. The ruler of the Syrian-Greeks, Antiochus Epiphanes had decreed that our people could no longer practice their Judaism.
Here are just a few of his oppressive rules. No Jewish sacrifices could be offered. Instead sacrifices of pigs had to be made to Zeus. Pagan temples had to be built in the land of Israel. Circumcision was prohibited. We could no longer observe our Torah laws but instead had to follow Greek laws. Shabbat and holiday celebrations were strictly forbidden. Everyone had to party on the Emperor’s birthday. Participation in Greek parades was mandatory. The penalty for not following any of these rules was of course death. And finally it was forbidden to identify oneself as a Jew. No one was even allowed to use Jewish names any more. So you could not be called Noah or Talya or Josh, but you could be called Bruce, Kim or Steve.
Well thank God the Maccabees did not want to be called Steve. (By the way the meaning of the name Steven comes from the Greek meaning crown. The ironies abound!) The Maccabees would not have any of these laws. They fought a long hard battle and as you know, won. They cleaned up the Temple, dedicated it in an eight day long celebration (Hanukkah means dedication), threw out all of those Jewish Steve’s, and proclaimed the holiday of Hanukkah for all generations to come. Today we light our menorahs to commemorate their victory and also of course as a reminder of the miracle of oil. Everyone knows this part of the story. There was barely enough oil for a one day dedication ceremony. Nonetheless the menorah was lit and the oil miraculously lasted for all eight days.
The first Hanukkah was about fighting not to be like others. But in our Torah portion Joseph is the first Jew to live in a foreign land. He lives among the Egyptians, making a home for himself there and becomes the second in command of all of Egypt. It is therefore more than a bit ironic that on the Shabbat when we celebrate Hanukkah and its message of being different than others and more importantly our right to be different, we read of Joseph taking on an Egyptian name and acting so much like an Egyptian that his brothers don’t even recognize him when they come begging for food.
Throughout the generations Judaism has gone back and forth between these poles. We want to be different. We want to be the same. Look at the next generation! My children are called Shira and Ari. And if you haven’t figured out already, my parents did not name me rabbi. When I was born the mohel did not announce, “We are proud to welcome rabbi into the covenant of Israel!” Shira’s and Ari’s parents are of course not named rabbi and rabbi, but Susie and Steve. Back and forth with the names we travel, always struggling to live as a Jew while being a part of the world at large. We want to be different. We want to be the same. That is the eternal story of Hanukkah.
On this Shabbat we will soon present our fourth graders with their very own prayerbooks, their very own Siddur. Why on Shabbat Hanukkah? It is because every Jew needs at least two books. The Bible and the prayerbook are the essential ingredients to building a Jewish life. (You will get a Bible in sixth grade.) You can be anywhere, in any land, in your home or synagogue, even in a church, as long as you have a Bible and a prayerbook in your hand, you can make a Jewish life.
But the Siddur, more than the Bible, is the book that represents the marriage of tradition with contemporary culture. It is of course about how we pray, how we thank God, how we celebrate our holy days. But it also reflects today. We use the words of Hebrew and our tradition as well as the melodies of American culture and the poetry of contemporary society. Perhaps in our congregation we combine cultures more forcefully than in others, but to my mind, the Siddur has always been about that. It has always been about this back and forth.
Prayer is about many things. It is first about reaching to heaven from the depths of inspiration—sometimes out of pain, but mostly out of joy. Prayer is also about reaching back through history. That is the power of the Hebrew. That is also why we more often than not use the words of our tradition and don’t write new prayers each and every time we gather. We stand on the shoulders of prior generations of pray-ers. We sing Lecha Dodi and Shalom Aleichem and V’Shamru. Few of our words can match those of the mystics who penned for example “Beloved, come to meet the bride; beloved come to greet Shabbat.” But we also sing Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu. We are still figuring out how to do both, how to live as Jew and to be part of the world at large. That is what the prayerbook is about and that is what Hanukkah is about.
My hope and prayer for our fourth graders is that you will use this prayerbook well. Carry it with you throughout your lives. (Yes I know it is too big to fit in your pocket. But it is certainly smaller than many of the textbooks you already carry.) Refer to it when you are unsure how to give thanks. Open its pages when you want help to sing with joy, especially about the joy of Shabbat. Don’t worry so much about making sure it always looks perfect. It is always better to use a book than to allow it to sit on your bookshelf as if it were a framed picture.
I imagine that in the next generation our prayerbooks will look different. I also imagine that in the next generation our names will be different. Both of course will be different, but the same. You can change a name. You can add more English readings to the next prayerbook. But we will forever remain the same. We will always be the Jewish people.
That is the meaning of Hanukkah. That is the import of the twists and turns in this week’s Torah portion. That is the power of the book you will soon hold in your hands.