What Lincoln Can Teach Us About Hanukkah

As a child I was raised on a steady dose of Pilgrims and Native Americans when it came to Thanksgiving. The story was told and retold come fall, and craft projects at school reflected that theme.

As I get older, however, that story seems to have faded from my thoughts as I draw to Thanksgiving. Perhaps it is because that history is more closely tied to that of colonial America, a history germane to my upbringing in New York, but less relevant to the history of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. But also that history is a difficult one, and aspects of American colonialism are not worthy of celebrating. We are reminded of the power of historic narratives, and that those narratives sometimes come into conflict with one another.

While the story of the Plymouth is meant to reflect the “First Thanksgiving”—Thanksgiving holidays were common and were days set aside for prayer in spontaneous response to timely events, like a good harvest. U.S. Presidents would declare days of Thanksgiving as well, though not consistently. States also fixed Thanksgiving holidays and again not consistently and not every state. It was only until President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declared the federal holiday did we have a uniform nationwide date and observance.

LincolnOur national holiday therefore has as much if not more of its roots in Lincoln’s time then colonial times. Lincoln’s declaration of a national Thanksgiving holiday, coming in the midst of the Civil War and in the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, speaks of the need to heal and unify during a destructive internal war.

The declaration reads:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In a rare event, Thanksgiving this year overlaps with Hanukkah, and much has been made about this cultural convergence. From turkey menorahs to latkes with cranberry sauce, there is much to find delight in as we celebrate both as American Jews.

But there are deeper connections to be made as well, and reading Lincoln’s declaration can not only impact how we understand Thanksgiving, but how we understand Hanukkah. Reading the Lincoln declaration is a reminder that the holiday of Hanukkah was similarly instituted—by a declaration of the Jewish authorities of the times, after a prolonged military conflict and with an eye towards permanent remembrance of those events.

The story of Hanukkah speaks of the revolt of the Jewish community in Judea against the oppression of King Antiochus and the ruling Seleucid Empire. After the conflict, led by the Hasmoneans (also known as Maccabees), which resulted in Jewish independence and the rededication of the ancient Temple, “Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the 25th day of the month of Kislev.” [1 Maccabees 4:59]

What we need to remember is that although we commonly tell the story of Hanukkah as a battle between the Jewish loyalists who wished to reestablish their religious practices and political independence in opposition to Greek hegemony, the conflict did also contain elements of a civil war among the Jewish community at the time, with traditionalists and Hellenizers internally battling each other.

Just as the Lincoln declaration was to create a day of healing during war, with an eye toward bringing together different factions, we can understand the creation of Hanukkah to be an observance dedicated to healing after war. One could imagine, that after the war of the Hasmoneans, the Jewish community was also in need of “peace, harmony, tranquility and Union,” and a communal celebration could do just that.

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we bring to mind many things. The thirst for religious liberty of our ancestors reminds us of the blessings of religious liberty we share and celebrate in this country. And when we light the menorahs at the darkest time of the year, we seek to brighten up the spiritual darkness that oftentimes pervades our lives, and use it as an opportunity to identify our own darknesses that need illumination.

And we also remember the story itself. Not just the miracle of one day’s worth of oil that burned for eight during the rededication of the Temple, a story made popular by the rabbis in the Talmud. But the historical story of strife, conflict, war and division. And that after times of conflict, we must pray for peace. After times of division, we must pray for unity.

As Lincoln in his declaration reminds us, Thanksgiving unity and peace means not only the ability to recognize and express gratitude for the blessings in our lives, but the necessity to reach out to those in need who may not yet share those blessings.

And the ability to overcome differences, heal, offer thanks and support those who continue to suffer is a Hanukkah miracle as well.

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