Although I have been a rabbi for more than 14 years, I have never delivered a sermon on Shabbat Ḥanukkah, because I am almost always in Israel at this time, visiting my Israeli son. And, by the way, I am happy to report that he has been granted leave from the IDF to come visit us in Pittsburgh in a little more than a week. I have not seen him in nearly two years.
Something that I’ve noticed in Israel during Ḥanukkah is that the popular messaging there about the holiday is a little different than it is here. In America, Ḥanukkah is about candles and presents. There, it’s more about the historical victory over Greek culture. Not the military aspect, so much as the Maccabees’ success in taking back Jewish life from the Hellenistic influence of the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenized Jews who were in favor of assimilation. That is, the celebration of Ḥanukkah is a statement of, “We are the Jews who lean into our history and tradition, and do not seek to assimilate into the surrounding culture.”
It’s a theme that I think tends to get lost in America, when the very celebration of Ḥanukkah here derives so much from its overbearing Christian cousin. Ironically, we mark Ḥanukkah here with practices born of assimilation.
I am reading right now author Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews, a collection of essays about the fascination that we and the rest of the world have with the tales of Jewish persecution, murder, and genocide.
In her chapter on the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, she distinguishes between what she calls “the Ḥanukkah version of anti-Semitism” and “the Purim version of anti-Semitism.” Ḥanukkah anti-Semitism is that which destroys Jewish civilization from the inside by pressuring Jews to gradually become non-Jews, while Purim anti-Semitism is a little bit more direct: kill all the Jews.
The Ḥanukkah version, perhaps more subtle, is accomplished by what is described in the first chapter of the I Maccabees (1:14-15). The Hellenized authorities convinced some of the Jews to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem (according to the gentile custom, notes the book), and some Jewish men reversed their circumcisions so they could compete at the gym, and spurned the Torah and its berit, our covenant with God.
So amidst all of the fun we have here, imitating our Christian neighbors by layering gift upon gift (as, I am told, some do for “eight crazy nights”), one might see how this message gets lost. (Not that I am impugning this practice – I’m mostly just bitter because my parents never gave me gifts for Ḥanukkah.)
But Ms. Horn is not far off: assimilation has, throughout history, created a powerful gravitational force that has pulled many Jews away from Judaism and out of Jewish life. While we have signed up eagerly for this kind of assimilation here in the Land of the Free, the Soviet Union, and the czars before it employed this sort of anti-Semitic tactic to solve what they perceived to be their Jewish problem.
So that’s one side of Ḥanukkah. But then there is the other side, one that perhaps we might have a better feel for in this corner of the world: the symbol of light, and our duty, while we are busy not assimilating ourselves out of existence, to make sure that we act in a way which illuminates the world.
On the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, we held the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service here at Beth Shalom, and I am happy to say that a handful of Beth Shalom members were there, along with folks from many other local faith communities.
Rabbi Mark Goodman, in his role as the Director of Derekh, coordinated the service with some of our interfaith partners, but this year’s program was much less a religious ceremony and much more an opportunity to learn about all sorts of local social service organizations that are performing good works in our city.
Among the fourteen organizations represented were such groups as
- the Alliance for Humanitarian Initiatives, Nonviolence and Spiritual Advancement
- Repair the World
- Days for Girls
- Foundation of Hope
- Global Links
- Casa San Jose
and so forth. Each was given a few minutes to introduce themselves, and after the brief ceremony, participants were encouraged to speak to representatives of the organizations.
One presenter, Cheryl Lowitzer of Open Hand Ministries, told a captivating story. Open Hand’s mission is to help bridge the wealth gap between black and white Pittsburghers by among other things, helping black families to buy homes. Most of us know how complicated buying and owning a home is. But for families who were excluded from home ownership by various means (e.g. redlining) for generations, the obstacles are much higher.
Among the things that Open Hand Ministries does is to help candidates with budgeting, reducing their debt, determining and improving credit scores, managing mortgages, and so forth. They also help families with repairing homes, using their own contractors at reduced rates. As Cheryl described it, the overarching goal of Open Hand is to help people manage their money so that it does not manage them.
Ms. Lowitzer told the story of one 60-year-old woman, whom they helped to buy her family’s first home ever. Upon achieving her goal, the woman remarked, “I’ve been paying for someone else’s dream for over 20 years. Now I’m going to fulfill my own dream.”
This is an organization that is truly making a difference in people’s lives, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about Open Hand, and the other organizations present that evening.
You may know that the psalm most closely associated with Ḥanukkah is Psalm 30, which opens with (Tehillim / Psalms 30:1)
מִזְמ֡וֹר שִׁיר־חֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַבַּ֣יִת לְדָוִֽד׃
A psalm of David. A song for the dedication of the House.
The word חנוכה / Ḥanukkah means, literally, “dedication. The “bayit” (house) referred to here is the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Given that the psalm may have been written 800 years before anybody had heard of a Maccabee, it is clearly not referring to the dedication in the Ḥanukkah story, but more likely the original ḥanukkat habayit, the dedication of the First Temple, built by Shelomoh haMelekh, King Solomon.
But if you can imagine how powerful it must have been for this woman to dedicate her own house, fulfilling a dream that neither she nor her parents or grandparents or great-grandparents have been able to fulfill, that might give you a sense of the power of Ḥanukkah, the power of light over darkness.
Further down in Psalm 30, we read (v. 6)
בָּ֭עֶרֶב יָלִ֥ין בֶּ֗כִי וְלַבֹּ֥קֶר רִנָּֽה׃
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (KJV*)
Light is a symbol of the victory over the dark; although we may suffer in dark times, redemption is always there, around the corner.
But symbols must lead to action. Joy doth not come with the light, unless we maketh it do so. If the Ḥanukkah candles do not lead us to a place where we do something concrete, something where we actually improve the quality of life of people near us, then we have missed the point. If we allow Ḥanukkah, or any Jewish holiday, merely to wash over us in joy and gifts and over-consumption of greasy foods, then we have not heeded the message.
Our goal in this season, as much as it should be to maintain our traditions, to remember our berit, our covenant, to resist assimilation by passing on moments of joy and gravitas and prayer to our children, should also be to act. To make a difference. To cast more light through action. To bring about ḥanukkat habayit – figuratively or literally to help dedicate a house.
A joyous and meaningful Ḥanukkah to you all, and may you be re-dedicated in this season to improving the lives of others.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6th day of Ḥanukkah, 12/4/2021.)
* King James Version translation. I don’t usually use King James, preferring the new Jewish Publication Society translation. However, in this case, it just seems to work so well.