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Before I knew of the existence of the sexual urge, I had a passion for life… for the continuation of life. I came to this world at a time of existential threat to my people and culture. My childhood was associated with the systematic destruction and murder of my people, including members of my own family. Don’t talk to me about it. I am still traumatized after a lifetime.
But I am mentioning this subject, so as to share with you some of the thoughts I had last night, when celebrating Chanukah with some of my younger grandchildren. I have older grandchildren too, adults, who are making their own choices, and living their own lives… a granddaughter who is soaking up culture and adventure in far away India. But the younger grandchildren were assembled last night in the home of Jonah and Yael, enjoying the festival of lights with music and games, good food and stories.
The holiday of lights, Chanukah, as we call it, goes back to the revolt of the Maccabees against the Greek occupation in the second century BCE. The holy temple had been desecrated. Jerusalem had been overrun and defeated. And yet, when the future of the Jewish people looked most bleak, a small group of idealists, led by a priest, succeeded in revolt against a powerful nation that had defeated us. The holy temple, which was a symbol of enlightenment to us, was once again consecrated, and the temple lamp which had gone out, was relit.
It was a miracle. That was the common consensus. But for those who wanted a more specific description of the miracle, there were differing opinions. Some felt that the miracle was that one flask of oil which should normally have lasted just a day, lasted eight days until more oil could be prepared for the temple lamp. Others saw the miracle in the fact that a little amateur army could overcome the prowess of a great nation. One of my favorite rabbis, said the miracle was that Jews were willing to fight at all. For me, the miracle is that even after total devastation, we are able to reorganize, fight evil, clean up the mess, and find what is sacred and holy.
If you’re wondering why it took eight days to prepare the oil for the temple lamp, this is how they would do it. They would take a sack of olives, and squeeze each one. The first drop that came out of the olives was collected. And that was the oil they used for the temple lamp. The lamp symbolized the temple. In our days it is the symbol of the State of Israel. Some of our sages saw the tending of the lamp as even more important than the activities surrounding sacrifices. At our family celebration, all of the children lit their own candles.
As a young man, I was greatly attracted to the arts. In part because the arts connect to values which are more lasting than our own individual lives. Knowing without doubt that I personally would eventually die, I wanted to be part of something that would last longer than I did. Afterwards, when I had children of my own, I started thinking of my children as a continuation of myself. Even after I’d die, my children would continue to live, and my blood would continue in them.
Last night, as I sat in a comfortable chair and watched my grandchildren playing, reading, making music… I asked myself, was I pleased? So many grandchildren… living and learning… healthier and happier than I was at their age. I looked at them all. And each one was different. Each was a world in himself or herself. Each with a distinct and separate personality. Not one of them was me. But there was comfort in the fact that these children are a part of this culture I love. And that they are continuing in their own way along the path I have walked. They’re starting where I got as an old man. And they’ll get further than I ever dreamed.
There have been ups and downs along the way, And I’m sure that they too will have their ups and downs. Honestly, most of them are more interested in sharing with me what they are learning these days, than listening to what I’ve learned through life. But it doesn’t matter that much to me. I see a continuation of the same values I love. And that’s enough for me. We ate potato pancakes and pizza. You know, potato pancakes are part of our tradition for this holiday. And pizza… well, pizza is always a good thing…
The holiday of Chanukah…or Hanukah, as it is sometimes spelled in English (because the English do not have the sound of the first letter of the word in this language), is a holiday that celebrates a miracle. And though we are told the story of the miracle, there are many who continued to ask… what miracle?
I have to tell you, my friends, that I am not fond of miracles… and don’t like to hear stories about miracles… Why?, you ask. Maybe I don’t believe in miracles? No, it isn’t that. In fact, I have seen miracles with my own eyes. I know there are such things, and I know they happen. But there is something about them, from every which way that you might look at them, that disturbs me… and I used to tell my children and my students, ‘don’t tell me about miracles… and don’t tell me about miracle rabbis’. Yes, for those of you who don’t know… there are some rabbis who are known primarily for their ability to bring about miracles…
In Hebrew, a miracle is called a ‘flag’. It is because it works something like a flag. We look at the world, and we see what we expect to see. Everything is normal. And then, all of a sudden, we see a flag. A flag that reminds us that there are things beyond what we see. There is also a supernatural reality. And that is the miracle. For me, the more I look at life, the more amazing and wonderful it is… beyond what I can understand by far. And so, the educational aspect of the miracle is unnecessary for me. And what’s more, I believe that if we live a life of common sense, and according to the values we’ve been taught… we don’t need miracles. And when we do, if we do… it is usually because of some terrible disaster. And I don’t like to hear about disasters.
The common understanding of the miracle of Hanukah is that there was only one jar of oil for the constant candle, which used to burn 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the holy temple. This oil was special. It was made from the first squeeze of ripe olives, and it took a week to prepare such oil, and so it was considered a miracle that the lamp kept burning for eight days until more oil was prepared for this lamp. So why is it, that the priests who found this single jar of oil, didn’t wait until they had a full supply to keep the lamp lit. This is a lesson in how to relate to a situation in which one can realize the sanctity of a situation, but not everything is the way it should be. It reminds us of Nachshon, at the Red Sea, with the Egyptians chasing after us. There were those who were frightened. Not just by the Egyptian soldiers chasing us, but by the fact that there was no way to turn. Nachshon kept going… right into the sea… and the waters receded, leaving dry land for the rest of us to cross. So what we learn, is that when we have some way to do something that is really important for us, existentially, we should go ahead, and not worry whether it is the perfect way to do what we desire.
But there are many different approaches to the miracle of Hanukah. Some teachers say that the miracle was in the fact that the Jews fought at all. Because anyone who knows the Jews well, knows that we are a peace loving people and don’t like to fight. It is only when we are pressed to the wall, and we have no other possibility, that we actually choose to fight. At times, it is aggravating. Because our reluctance to fight makes our enemies bolder, and they provoke us again and again… wanting to have a rumble. So some say it was a miracle we fought at all. Even when the Greeks had taken over our country, and had appointed their friends to govern, and paraded around with elephants (which were the equivalent of tanks in our eyes)… It was only when they insisted on sacrificing a pig in the holy temple, which was an abomination for us, that we rose up, under the leadership of the priests, and fought.
There is much I could tell you about this unusual holiday. For the essence of it is our relationship to the holy temple. But I will close with my best wishes to all my friends, and remind you, as I remind my grandchildren, that a candle loses nothing by giving of it’s fire to another candle… and that each candle joins the light in pushing back the darkness… and here are some more pictures of visits from my grandchildren on this happy Hanukah.
This week we are celebrating the festival of lights, Hanukah, during which we remember the re dedication of the holy temple, some 2160 years ago, here in Jerusalem. The holiday is dedicated to our memories of the temple and the values that it stood for, and in almost every home, here in Israel, people light candles every evening. For me, this is an opportunity to get together with children and grand children, and join them in celebration. Friends as well as relatives come by. Last night I had the pleasure of listening to a private concert, as my grandson, David, played some well known tunes on the keyboard. Best wishes to all.