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No Easy Answers – Shabbat Hanukkah 5781

OK, so let’s face it: Hanukkah is a strange holiday. Yes, it is the best known and the most celebrated in the Jewish world. Yes, it is joyous and fun and a rollicking good time when it is cold and dark outside.

But Hanukkah is also a study in contrasts:

  • Is it about the victory of the Maccabees, a small, scrappy army of Judeans, over the Seleucid Empire? Is it about throwing off the yoke of a huge imperial power and denying their Hellenistic culture and influence, according to the story found in the non-canonical Books of the Maccabees? 
  • Or is it about the rededication of the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem and the small vial of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, as mentioned centuries later in the Talmud? 
  • Is it actually a holiday of some stature, or a minor observance that arguably distracts from the really important holidays of the Jewish year, like Shavu’ot (one of the three pilgrimage festivals, which celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai)? 
  • Is it merely a weak excuse for American Jews to placate their children by providing a Christmas-like experience, a feeble, consumerist attempt to make Judaism look appealing in a sea of tinsel and holly? 
  • Is it a reminder to illuminate the world with our values, the values of freedom and Torah, or a mere celebratory trifle, a lightweight among weightier Jewish holidays?

There is no reason, of course, why it cannot be all of these things.

Some of you tuned in last week to hear me speak about the messages delivered by angels to Ya’aqov, and in particular his receiving the new name of Yisrael. We are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God and with people. I offered that, while it might be nice every now and then to get a direct message from God, brought to us by a mal’akh, an angel that is a designated Divine messenger, generally we do not receive heavenly messages.

On the contrary, we receive so many other types of messages that it is impossible to tell which ones may be Divine in origin and which are merely human. I can remember a handful of times in my life in which a voice in my head told me clearly to do something, and I cannot be entirely sure where it came from. 

But Judaism does, in some sense, rely on our tradition to give us signals from the Qadosh Barukh Hu. Dr. Louis Finkelstein z”l, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is known to have said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.” We understand that in order to hear God’s voice, to find those messages, we have to dig deep into the texts of Jewish life: Talmud, Torah commentaries, tefillah, and so forth. 

And even in the middle of all that text, all of that traditional beit-midrash-style give-and-take of argument and subtlety and nuance among the jumble of Hebrew and Aramaic, we still may not receive the message.

Because, you know what? There are no simple answers.

There are no simple answers to the hard questions, the questions to which we might actually need a Godly answer. There are no easy answers to the kinds of questions that Yisrael, those who struggle with God, might ask, questions like:

  • If God is all-powerful and God is all good, then why are we suffering from a worldwide pandemic, in which thousands of people around the world are dying every day? Why were the Nazis allowed to murder so many people? 
  • If God wants us to treat one another with respect, why is there racism found within the human heart? Why do some upright, honest people suffer, while some despicable people thrive?
  • Where did we come from?
  • Is God listening to us at all? Does God even have ears with which to listen?
  • What is Hanukkah REALLY all about? A miracle, a successful uprising, or defense of culture and tradition?

Sarah Hurwitz is a former speechwriter for Michelle Obama. Back in Tishrei of 5780 (that is, around Rosh Hashanah in 2019) she wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about her own rediscovery of the complexity of Judaism as an adult, titled Religion for Adults Means Embracing Complexity

Ms. Hurwitz begins by explaining that, although she grew up going to synagogue and celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah, the words of prayer and our customs and songs and stories and texts were effectively meaningless to her, and so she rejected them. And although she came back for High Holidays year after year for decades, she would only resent the apparent simplicity of the message of those days: good deeds put you in the Book of Life; sin leads to the Book of Death, so you better repent.

And then, at age 36 (certainly a suitable age – double hai, twice the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life” – for discovering Judaism), she decided to take an Introduction to Judaism class, and found what she had been missing in her Hebrew school education: complexity.

She points out that not only does the Untaneh Toqef prayer ask, מי יחיה ומי ימות, who shall live and who shall die, but also, מי ינוח ומי ינוע, who shall be calm and who shall be tormented, and מי יעני ומי יעשר, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, and of course that those descriptors can be understood as metaphor. She learned that this prayer draws heavily from the book of Iyyov / Job, which wrestles with theology until God comes along in a whirlwind and more or less asks Iyyov, who are you to challenge Me? What do you know of the complexity of My world? (Job 38).

Ms. Hurwitz realized that she had never understood this because, since she stopped her Jewish education at age twelve and never proceeded any further, she was never in a situation where she could actually wrestle with this complexity, with the richness of the Jewish bookshelf, and the powerful words of wisdom therein. We cannot really teach the many layers of meaning in Untaneh Toqef, or in the Amidah (the standing, silent prayer recited 3x/day), or even in something as simple as Modeh Ani (the first words that should leave our lips every morning, acknowledging gratitude for life), to children; ours is a tradition that was created, maintained, and carried by adult Jews for thousands of years. Different layers, different strands of our tradition are meant to speak to us at different stages of our lives. That is the glory of religion in general: it is neither pediatric nor geriatric; it is both, and everything in-between as well.

That is why, and I know you’ve heard me say this before, we read the Torah every year; the same Torah. That is why daily tefillah (prayer) is mostly the same each day and from week to week, because every time we turn back to these words, we unlock something new; we connect them to a new part of ourselves as we grow and change and mature. There is no end to the perspectives we gain each time we return.

Ms. Hurwitz writes,

If someone told us that they found their sixth-grade science or history classes to be dull and overly simplistic, and thus entirely stopped learning about those subjects, we would be appalled. But that is precisely what many of us do with religion, including plenty who continue to show up at our places of worship and go through the motions. We’ve rejected the kiddie stuff but never bothered to replace it with an adult version.

And that’s a real loss, because mature forms of religion don’t traffic in simplistic or implausible answers, but push us to ask the right questions. Not just “what does it mean to be happy or successful?” But “what does it mean to lead a truly ethical life? To be part of a community? To serve something greater than one’s self?”

And therein lies the challenge for us today, even as adults who appreciate and value our tradition. When the minhag / custom of today is to express yourself in 280 characters or less, or with a photo and a brief caption, how will we possibly capture that complexity? How will we relay the many layers, the multi-dimensional perspectives and thoughts and expressions of grief and joy and solitude and raucousness?

How do we pass on the value of Torah, in all its messy, organic glory and open-ended, occasionally inscrutable wisdom, when we boil a holiday experience down to lighting candles and eating fried foods? How do we teach the wonderfully esoteric items of Jewish culture, as distinct from ancient Greek culture, when we can barely get past sheheheyyanu?

What if, particularly during this COVID Hanukkah when we are all stuck inside with our families, we set aside a few minutes, over latkes, to discuss the possible parallels between the Maccabees’ world and our own? Can we acknowledge our assimilated, and yet connected way of living today? Can we face the thorny questions around Jewish identity in the context of secular America? Can we talk about the power and holiness in our ancient customs, our traditions, and how we need them to help make our lives better today?

We need to dig deeper, to ask more questions, to continue to struggle. We need to, as Ms. Hurwitz puts it, to do the seeking, the learning, and the grappling ourselves. The table is set before you, not just with latkes and sufganiyot (jelly dougnuts), or for that matter haroset and maror (symbolic foods of Passover) or apples and honey (Rosh Hashanah) or cheesecake (Shavu’ot), but with an impossibly rich range of appetizers, sumptuous main dishes, and multiple courses of wine. There are no easy answers, but within that smorgasbord of Jewish life and text there is much of value, and finding it is more than half the fun. It is all there. Now come and learn.

Shabbat shalom, and hag urim sameah (Happy Festival of Lights)!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, the second day of Hanukkah, 12/12/2020.)