Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hanukkah, Thanksgiving and Dual Devotions

This evening begins the holiday of Hanukkah. Tomorrow is of course when we will gather for Thanksgiving. Although these holidays appear worlds (and lands) apart, they are in fact connected by history and theme.

First a reminder about Hanukkah. Forgive the abbreviated summary. During the second century B.C.E. Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian-Greek ruler over the land of Israel, made it increasingly difficult for Jews to observe Judaism. The Maccabees battled against his mighty army and eventually defeated the Syrian-Greeks. They found the Temple in Jerusalem desecrated and so declared an eight-day dedication ceremony. Hanukkah means dedication. According to later rabbinic writings they found there in the Temple only enough oil to last for one day but it miraculously lasted for all eight days.

Their initial reason for eight days had nothing to do with the miracle of oil. So why did they declare an eight-day festival? It was because the first and second Temples were dedicated during the eight-day fall festival of Sukkot. In order to rededicate the Temple they looked back to their history and the holiday when they first dedicated these Temples. Now the Maccabees were not only given an opportunity to celebrate this all-important holiday that they missed observing during the war but to rededicate the Temple to Jewish worship.

While the Puritans did not observe Sukkot (they did not believe in fixed holidays except for the Sabbath; I wonder as well if this temperament continues to influence American Jews), they certainly drew on its themes when celebrating their first Thanksgiving. On that day in 1621 when this first Thanksgiving was observed, they wished to thank God for a bountiful harvest. Their keen understanding of the Hebrew Bible offered them the example of Sukkot. This holiday is our quintessential harvest festival. The booths hearken back to our people’s agricultural roots when we lived near our fields in order to make the harvest easier. It was on this day when we thanked God for the blessings of the land.

The essence of both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is gratitude. And there is much for which to be thankful. Could not the words of our tradition’s Al Hanism prayer recited to mark Hanukkah also apply to Thanksgiving?
We thank You, O God… In Your abundant mercy, You stood by Your people in their time of distress. You championed their cause, vindicated their rights, and avenged their suffering. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the just…
Or perhaps we might look to the words of Emma Lazarus, the American Jewish poet, who saw in her adopted land a confluence of devotions. In her voice the love of Judaism and America are one.
O deem not dead that martial fire,
     Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses’ law and David’s lyre,
     Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the banner of the Jew!
And so our hearts are joined in devotions. We give thanks as Americans and as Jews.

A suggestion: If your custom is to give presents for Hanukkah and especially for all eight days add GivingTuesday to your observance. Rather than exchanging presents on Tuesday, December 3, decide as a family where you wish to give tzedakah. Make one night about what others really need rather than what we want. Helping others should never diminish our gratitude.

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