We Didn’t Reach Out to Antiochus. We Organized Against Him.

This Saturday night begins Hanukkah, our Jewish winter celebration. Later in the Gregorian year than normal, according to the lunar calendar Hanukkah falls the same time every year—a week that runs over the new moon closest to the solstice, the longest and darkest night of the year.

Hanukkah is our tradition’s contribution to these wintertime festivals, and the layers of meaning behind the holiday are many. As a nod to these long nights of darkness, Hanukkah is the time in which we light candles against the darkness, marking the turning of the seasons and with the celebration of the solstice, the return of the light and the lengthening days.

Hanukkah also celebrates the story of a miracle—how when the ancient Temple was restored after being desecrated by the Greek king Antiochus, only a small vial of sanctified oil was found to light the menorah, the lamp that was permanently lit within the Temple. Enough to last only one day as the story goes, the oil lasted for eight, which allowed time to produce more sanctified oil. The miracle is on the one hand the fact that a small resource lasted so long. On the other hand, the miracle is the act of faith and commitment that leads one to act even if one feels that their action will be for limited or minimal effect.

It’s this second understanding of the miracle that I have been thinking of recently, for it ties into the other layer of meaning for Hanukkah, the historical reason. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek king Antiochus IV imposed oppressive rule on the Jewish community of Judea, banning Jewish worship and ritual practice and desecrating Jewish holy spaces.

The historical record is nuanced on what Antiochus was doing. While he did impose the oppressive regulations, he was in part responding to a Jewish civil struggle in which traditionalists and Hellenists were at odds with each other and fought among themselves for power within the autonomous Jewish community. He was therefore trying the strengthen his rule by intervening in an internal struggle, pitting factions against each other.

And while not part of the traditional Hanukkah story we tell, when he imposed the anti-Jewish measures the historical Antiochus was returning from a stinging defeat in Egypt. Perhaps his actions towards the Jews was a way of turning against a people already under his control, again as a means of asserting his power by bullying and picking on a power lesser than he.

But needless to say, his rule drew opposition, and that is the traditional story we tell. The priest Mattithias and his sons led a revolutionary band of mercenaries called the Maccabees, who revolted against the oppressive regime and successfully drove out Antiochus and the Greek army, thus establishing an independent Jewish political entity.

This is the miracle we celebrate.

Just like lighting the lights at the end of the story, the miracle of the Maccabees in the beginning of their story is that they took action even if they thought that their action may only have minimal and temporary effect. Did they know that their small rebellion would be enough to overthrow a larger army? We don’t know. But they took action anyway, and eventually were successful.

Therefore moreso than lights, and moreso than the military victory itself, the miracle of the Maccabees is the initial rejection of the conditions imposed on them. They could have been complacent, could have accepted their political reality. But rather than choose to try to understand Antiochus, or his supporters, or his motives, rather than reach out to bridge the divide, they saw a situation that was untenable and organized against it.

When we light the candles on the menorah, we do so with the knowledge that they will burn out. But we keep lighting them, night after night, more candles each night. And when we do so, we see that each small action has a greater and greater impact. The lights of the menorah remind us of the power we can and should wield to examine our conditions, reject those that we find oppressive and intolerable, and organize to change them.

The candles of the menorah remind us that through organizing and action, we can make miracles.


A Very Pagan Hanukkah


Today is the fifth day of Hanukkah if you are reading this after sunset (which you probably are, since I didn’t post it until after sunset.) This is a special day of this eight day holiday because it is the first day in which we have more light than darkness. When we light the candles corresponding to the day of the holiday, we also have empty holes on the menorah corresponding with the days left. The fifth day is the first day when we have more candles than empty holes.

The stories of why we celebrate Hanukkah are well known. How the Maccabees led a revolt against King Antiochus who put severe restrictions on Jewish practice, and how that revolt was eventually successful. And how, upon entering the Temple to rededicate it after it had been defiled, the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil that ended up burning for eight.


But perhaps the most basic story, the most visceral aspect of Hanukkah, is that we hold a festival during the darkest time of year. This is a story in and of itself, that facing a dark time of year, a community responds by creating light.

Indeed, a passage from our Talmud hints at this:

When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, “Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity. (Avodah Zarah 8a)

The Talmud describes an eight day festival around the time of the winter solstice. And so while much is made about the pagan roots of Christmas trees, we should not neglect to notice the pagan roots of Hanukkah. And by pagan, I mean a recognition of and ritual acknowledgement of the natural cycles of the world. Judaism is rooted in earth-based spirituality.

We can imagine the sentiment expressed by Adam in this midrash (commentary). We can imagine what it must have been like to be the first human on earth, noticing the shortening of the days as summer turned into fall turned into winter. And we can imagine the fear that must bring, to think that darkness is going to be overwhelming the light, how that is a “the death heaven has decreed.” And then to imagine what it must have been like to then see the days growing longer, and to know that it is not the death of the world, but its rebirth.

We can agree with the rabbis: this cycle of darkness and light is worthy of celebration.

As our calendar is lunar-based, we don’t acknowledge the solstice per se. But Hanukkah does run through Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month, which is marked by the new moon. And the new moon means no moon. So Hanukkah does run over the new moon that is closest to the solstice, or, in other words, over the darkest night of the year that is closest to the longest night of the year.

[And in an interesting bit of weather related news for our geographic region, it was reported that Seattle is also seeing its darkest days in nine years.]

So while we often speak of Hanukkah as marking a revolution and a rededication, we can also celebrate Hanukkah as a rebirth—the rebirth of our world as we cycle through the seasons. (And interestingly the next holiday after Hanukkah is Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees, celebrating new buds and growth.) Days will soon grow longer, the amount of light will increase. This is “the way of the world,” and for that we are grateful.

And as we move towards the end of Hanukkah, we look upon the menorah and see that the light is increasing. As we look upon the menorah, at least for this night, when the light is greater than the darkness, let’s not think of Maccabees and swords, or jars and seals. Let’s think of the light itself, and how it brings us comfort and security, how we welcome back the lengthening of days, and how we, in our power, light up the darkness that surrounds us.

Pray, But Light the Candles Too

With Hanukkah beginning this Sunday night, it is time to retell the traditional story of Hanukkah, how a small band of Jewish rebels rose up against the oppressive regime of King Antiochus, the Greek ruler who imposed severe restrictions on the Jewish community and Jewish practice, even desecrating the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Once the rebellion was successful, the rebels, known as the Maccabees, went about rededicating the Temple and restoring Jewish worship.

As part of that rededication, the story goes, the Maccabees went to light the lamp that was meant to be continually lit. They found only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day, but it burned for eight. This, the ancient Jewish sages say in the Talmud, was the miracle of Hanukkah, and why the holiday is celebrated for eight days.

But this is only one tradition for the source of the length of the holiday. When we read the historical accounts of the Hanukkah story in the apocryphal biblical books I and II Maccabees, the reason is different. There is no mention of a small vial of oil burning for an extended period of time. Rather, upon rededicating the Temple, the Jews celebrated Sukkot, which they were unable to mark due the ongoing battles. Once the war was over and the Temple restored, the Jews were able to celebrate Sukkot, a seven-day holiday, and Shimini Atzeret, the separate festival which immediately follows Sukkot, and thus make an eight-day-long celebration. The Maccabees instituted the celebration of Hanukkah to remember the events, and the holiday lasts eight days to parallel the eight day celebration of the late Sukkot the Maccabees observed.

The two sources tell different stories, perhaps for different reasons. The historical sources want to glorify and highlight the military victory. The rabbinic sources want to put the focus on a divine miracle. In other words, the historical sources want to put the emphasis on human action and the rabbis want to put the emphasis on divine action.

While seemingly contradictory, the two can be harmonized. Narratively we can tell both stories together, how after the Maccabees were successful in their revolt, they went into the Temple and found the oil and their success was sealed by the miracle of the lamp. Thus the human acts and the divine act can be told seamlessly in one narrative. It can be both/and, and not either/or.

Harmonize these stories we must, for we need to tell them together, we can not choose one narrative over the other. We need both divine inspiration and human action.

It is by relying on both that we are able to navigate our lives. We are taught in our Jewish tradition that we are partners with God; in the beginning stories of Genesis, the stories of the Garden of Eden, God creates the world and then creates humans to take care of it. This, from the beginning of our sacred text, teaches us an important value. We look to God as a source of vision, but we must act ourselves to make that vision a reality.

I’m writing this in the wake of another major mass shooting in America, something that happens unfortunately on an all too regular basis. And in all the reaction, I was struck by the front page of the New York Daily News, and its sensationalist headline:

daily news

Irrespective of the specific political bent of the headlines, the editors are sending a strong message: platitudes about “thoughts and prayers” aren’t going to cut it when there are real steps we can take to abate the constant gun violence in our country.

So yes we must pray. Prayer is the means by which we can give voice to our ideals and articulate our hope and dreams. Prayers for peace, prayers for justice, prayers for healing are important in that they remind us that peace, justice and healing are values we hold in high importance.

And at the same time, we commit to do what we can to bring about peace, justice and healing.

Like the rabbis of the Talmud, we must see the miracle that is redemption, that is light out of darkness, that is the ability to overcome oppression. And like the authors of the Book of Maccabees, we must see the role we need to play to bring that to fruition.

The task is daunting. It is tempting at times to see the enormity of the task and resign ourselves to the fact that that human agency will never accomplish our greatest ideals. Or to rely solely on prayer without doing what is necessary. Will gun violence ever completely be wiped away from the face of the earth? Probably not. Will evil continue to exist? Will sickness and disaster continue to plague us? Probably yes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to bring about the better world we so desire.

In harmonizing the stories of Hanukkah, and in rebelling against our contemporary challenges, we would do well to remember another teaching from the ancient rabbis, from Pirke Avot: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21) For perhaps the miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted for eight days, but that the Maccabees lit it at all, knowing that it wasn’t enough.

With each night of Hanukkah, with each new candle we light, we remember an ancient story of redemption at the same time we remind ourselves that we have the power to increase the light. The darkness may return when the candles burn out, but we say our prayers and light them anyway.

Hanukkah and Power: #BlackLivesMatter

Like with much of our religious traditions and sacred stories (or really anything for that matter) what we learn as kids is revealed to be much more complicated as adults.

Take the Hanukkah story for example. The general narrative is of the Maccabees, a Jewish family which lead a revolt against the oppressive tactics of the ruling Greek empire which suppressed Jewish practice and expression.. The revolt was successful at driving out the Greeks, and led to the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by idolatry. Lighting the sacred lamp (menorah), it was discovered that there was only enough consecrated oil to last one day. It lasted for 8, however, a miraculous event that we mark.

As we reflect on this story, it gets complicated. For example, the 8 days of Hanukkah are also associated with a delayed celebration of Sukkot. Additionally, the story of the oil appears to be a later addition of the rabbis of the Talmud, and is absent in the historical records of the Book of Maccabees.

The themes of lighting up the darkness, and the pursuit of the right to individual and communal religious expression, survive any scrutiny of the story–these are universal themes which over Hanukkah are expressed through the Maccabee story, themes which are worthy of celebration.

One other complicating factor draws our attention this year. This complicating factor is one we don’t usually talk about, because it is what happens next, after the events we mark on Hanukkah. For after the rededication of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom, the ruling Hasmoneans (the family of the Maccabees) established a regime of their own, using violence to solidify their rule.

(This also has echoes of the earlier violence, which, though directed at the Greek regime, also included elements of civil war, as the Jewish population was divided in its support for the ruling parties.)

Regimes using violence and oppressive tactics to exercise authority and power, these issues persist to this day. Mindful of the Hanukkah story and its excesses, our job is to be mindful of this tendency towards institutionalized oppression and work to oppose it.

Our nation recently has been confronted, once again, with these issues. Cases of African-Americans being brutalized and killed by the police have transcended their local impact in Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland to break open a larger conversation of institutionalized racism and its dangers, especially when that institution is the police.

art by Zoe Cohen from chanukahaction.org
art by Zoe Cohen from chanukahaction.org

We carry a legacy of racial discrimination in this country which continues to this day. And even though racial bias increasingly lacks a legal imprimatur, other discrete forms of bias persist in ways both overt and covert. When this is combined with an institution given authority and the public trust (not to mention weapons) it is imperative that we seek it out and identify it, else we stand no chance of overcoming it.

One way to have the conversation about covert forms of biases is to examine and recognize white privilege, the ways our society favors the white experience and gives a distinct advantage to those with white skin. This concept should not be foreign to us, for we as Jews understand that it is like to be at the receiving end of (culturally) Christian privilege especially at this time of year, when we do not see our experience and culture reflected in the dominant culture. (And when we do, it sometimes feels like tokenism.)

So we Jews need to be part of the conversation. Both because of our own historical experience in this country, but also because of our sacred teachings. We are taught that we are created b’tzelem Elohim–each in the image of God. This means that each person is worthy and deserving of respect. This means that all lives matter. This means that Black lives matter.

And Jewish groups are recognizing this. Jewish groups, along with other faith communities, are at the forefront of the conversation. This is only fitting, as it is not just a policy conversation, it is a moral conversation. And as we turn our attention to the celebration of Hanukkah, it is a fitting time to focus our spiritual energy on this important conversation. See Chanukah Action to End Police Violence or vsGoliath, for example, for information and resources to add this kavannah (intention) to your own observance of Hanukkah as I am adding it to mine.

The story of Hanukkah teaches of the promise and peril of institutional power. The peril comes when a good and helpful and important institution like the police gets tainted with racism and abuse of power. The promise comes, however, in our ability to over come it and shine a light on this particular darkness.

Investing in Oil, Lighting our Future

We are perhaps all familiar with the story of Hanukkah, which begins this coming Tuesday night. In the second century BCE, the Jewish community was under the tyrannical rule of the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who imposed a series of harsh anti-Jewish measures on the population. He forbade the practice of Judaism, imposed Hellenizing policies and event went so far as to turn the Temple in Jerusalem—the most holy spot and the center of Jewish life at the time—into a shrine for idol worship.

A band of rebels led by a priest named Mattathias and his sons, known as the Maccabees, led a revolt against the Greek army. They succeeded in overthrowing the Greeks, establishing an independent Jewish state and recapturing the Temple.

That is the rough history, the story that we tell. The details always add more nuance to the general narrative, but the story provides some key understandings of why we celebrate Hanukkah: a celebration of Jewish identity, the value of religious tbh-3liberty, the importance of communal self-determination.

And then, of course, there is the folklore associated with the story, primarily the story of the oil. As the story goes, after the defeat of the Greeks, the Jews went to rededicate the Temple. They removed any evidence of idol worship and rededicated (Hanukkah means “dedication”)the Temple to Jewish practice. A key part of Temple practice was the menorah—a candelabrum that was continuously lit. (The ner tamid “eternal light” in our contemporary synaogues are meant to recall this light). The Maccabees found only enough sanctified oil to last for one day, when lit however it lasted for eight.

The volume of one vial of oil multiplied eight-fold. Some call this the miracle of Hanukkah. Others may call it a very successful return on investment.

It’s what we all hope will happen: we take something small and turn it into something big. Gardeners and farmers hold on to this hope each growing season—that from a small seed a large bounty will be produced. We use our communal resources to educate our children, hoping that as they grow they will use their knowledge and experience to make their own contribution to community and society.

And in the financial world, we put aside some money now, invest it and let it grow so we can reap the benefits of it later.

As a Jewish community in Olympia, as we celebrate that investment in oil futures that we mark on Hanukkah, we are in the process of investing in our own future with the Building Strength Capital Campaign.

It has been 10 years since we moved into our new home at Temple Beth Hatfiloh, and now is the time to secure the future of this home by building an endowment that will allow us to care for our sacred communal space in perpetuity. We have never had an endowment at TBH, and we are one of the few congregations in the area that does not. Our building requires a lot of care and attention, and our congregational leadership has wisely decided that rather than come hat-in-hand each time we need to do a maintenance project, we build an endowment that will pay out over time the costs associated with upkeep and repair.

[And our congregational leadership has planned this out, developing a spreadsheet of projected maintenance and replacement projects over the next 30 years.]

We know that a community or congregation is not defined by a physical structure. Our building does not make us who we are: a community dedicated to Jewish tradition, to education, to communal service, to social justice, to love and support. But our building gives us a place to live out our ideals and values, and provides us a central address where we can connect and make our Jewish home.

And not just for us. Our building has become a gathering place for other organizations, has hosted community events and concerts, has provided a warm shelter for the homeless.

The Building Strength Capital Campaign has been progressing very successfully, but we need more support. I have pledged, the Board has pledged, many community members have pledged. I invite you to join me in this endeavor. You can click here for the campaign materials and a pledge form.

Unlike our last capital campaign that produced our building, we won’t get something exciting to look at out of this one. An investment account and the promise of a future roof replacement are not very thrilling, I know. But we are investing in something more important—an idea. The idea that the Jewish presence in Olympia is worth perpetuating, and that Jewish tradition and community in Olympia are valuable to us and to the generations to come.

We would do well to remember this as Hanukkah approaches. For while the story of the rededication of the Temple is the focal point of the holiday of Hanukkah, even giving the festival its name, we remember that the Maccabees were not just fighting for a building. They were fighting for the same idea: that a Jewish communal presence is worth perpetuating, and that Jewish tradition and community are valuable throughout the generations.

And here we are, celebrating Hanukkah.

So as we celebrate Hanukkah and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, let’s recommit to the dedication of our Temple here in Olympia. If we do so, we can also witness the miracle of the light of Judaism continuing to burn bright.

“If the Ladder is Rickety, Don’t Rely on Miracles.”

Today is the last day of Hanukkah.

Much like the spices at Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, which are meant to remind us of the sweetness of Shabbat over the course of the rest of the week, so too does to fully-lit menorah we lit last night is meant to leave us with the power of light illuminating the darkness as we move into the rest of the year.

Hanukkah is a time to celebrate miracles. We tell the story of the Maccabees who, after defeating the Syrian-Greeks in a military conflict, rededicate the Temple and find a small amount of oil to light the menorah, the eternal light that was always lit in that sacred building. (Think of the ner tamid, the eternal light in our contemporary sanctuaries). While the amount of oil was enough for one night, say the ancient sages, it lasted 8, which was enough time to produce more oil. Thus the miracle of Hanukkah.

For those who have been by the TBH building recently you may have noticed that the reader board on the corner of 8th and Washington is different. Rather than tell the times of the services this coming week or announcing special events, I have taken it over to put a short message and teaching. With the website and emails, we have other ways of letting folks know what is going on; we don’t need another announcement board, but we can always use another means of teaching!

I’ve been selecting a new teaching each month or so, and for the month of Kislev through Hanukkah I took a quote from the Talmud in tractate Kiddushin, page 39b: “If the ladder is rickety, don’t rely on miracles.”

The quote is actually a paraphrase. The rabbis in the Talmud are speaking of the reward for doing a mitzvah (sacred obligation). They teach that if one performs a mitzvah, he or she is rewarded with long life, and if one does not, he or she is punished similarly.

But, say the sages, they have seen instances which seem to disprove this idea.

The specific example they bring refers to Deuteronomy 22:6: “If, along the road,  you chance upon a birds’ nest, in a tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”

The sages relate a story of a man who tells his son to climb a ladder to collect eggs from a nest, but to be sure to shoo the mother away first in keeping with the Torah teaching. He did so, but climbing back down, he fell and died. Where is the long life in reward for following this mitzvah, they ask? (Especially since in the Torah it refers specifically to the reward of long life.)

First the sages question the occurrence, but one rabbi vouches that it happened. Another suggests that the youth was thinking sinful thoughts, but that too is dismissed. Ultimately they hold by their original thought, that performing mitzvot and good deeds leads to a better life. But in this instance, they say, “the ladder was rickety, and would have caused injury. And if injury is likely, one must not rely on a miracle.”

In other words, if something is dangerous, be realistic, and don’t think you are going to miraculously be saved. And maybe if you see something broken, don’t rely on a miracle to take care of it, go out and fix it yourself.

Hanukkah is a celebration of miracles. We tell the story of one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight. The Bible too speaks of miracles of seas parting to facilitate escape and the sun standing still to lengthen the day. But those are not the miracles we recognize in our own lives. The miracles in our lives are the blessings we did not at first recognize or even know we needed, but when they come to us, and we see them, our lives are altered.

And as the Talmud teaches, while we should be open to miracles from outside ourselves, another type of miracle is the ability to affect our own reality. Hanukkah is a celebration of the success of the human endeavor to overcome one’s station and affect radical change. The ability to see a “rickety” situation and not rely on something or someone else to change it for us–that we as humans are not static but dynamic, not dependent but independent–is a miracle as well.

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.

Vanquishing our Goblins

Last weekend we had a wonderful visit from Eric Kimmel, one of the leading Jewish children’s book authors. Eric visited the Timberland Library on Saturday evening, then spent Sunday morning with our Beit Sefer families before concluding his time with a lunch with community members.

For a tradition that loves storytelling, Eric continues that tradition with retellings of old tales as well as new storiess. He draws upon well-known and not-so-well-know figures from Jewish folklore and also gives new life to holidays through his imaginative tellings.

One of his most popular books, which has become a classic, is Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. He read it as part of his visit, and it was a delight to see so many people bring their own personal copies (some quite well-worn) for him to sign. The book tells the story of Hershel of Ostropol, who, while visiting a town, agrees to challenge the Hanukkah goblins who haunt the synagogue. These goblins prevent the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, and each night Hershel tricks them into letting him light the candles. The last night, the king of the goblins is similarly tricked, and heads off into the night.


At the lunch last Sunday Eric shared some of the stories behind the stories, as well as his own approach to storytelling and education. He provided some valuable insight, including the idea that Jewish storytelling is first and foremost about teaching values, and that is something he looks for in every story he writes.

Another powerful and poignant fact is about the reality of evil, and that it is necessary not to shield children from that fact. When he was talking about Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, he mentioned a speaking engagement at a synagogue where the cantor showed him an article he had written. The article compared the story of Hershel with the commonly known Dr. Seuss tale, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

The difference, wrote the cantor, is that in the latter book, evil is vanquished by being completely overcome. The Grinch is revealed to be simply uninformed or inexperienced in the joy of Christmas, and that is what causes him to be so mean. At the end of the book, after experiencing the joy, the Grinch is converted from his evil ways.

In contrast, at the end of Hershel, the goblins still exist. They haven’t been turned to good, they have simply been temporarily defeated. As Eric pointed out, the king of the goblins will simply move on to the next town. Evil was vanquished this time, but evil continues to exist.

This is truly a powerful observation, and astounding to think about absorbing this message, both for children and adults alike. When so much of our time–and children’s literature ink–is spent pretending that evil doesn’t exist, an admission of its reality is both terrifying and a relief. Yes, evil exists. Yes, we can defeat it. And yes, it will continue to manifest itself in one form or another.

Sometimes evil is made manifest in ways we can not control–as when a child is struck by cancer. And sometimes evil is human-created, as in the many ways we continue to oppress and harm one another.

This month, we remember one such manifestation of evil perpetrated against the Jewish community. 75 years ago this month the German government launched a pogrom against the Jews of Germany and Austria in what has commonly become known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.”  Synagogues burned, Torahs and books destroyed, Jewish-owned shops were vandalized and looted, and Jews themselves rounded up and sent to camps. It is sometimes seen as the “beginning of the end,” the move from subtle laws and cultural biases against the Jews to outright and blatant action. (We will remember Kristallnacht this Friday at our Erev Shabbat services at Temple Beth Hatfiloh.)

In the scope of Holocaust remembrance, perhaps we don’t remember this period and event enough. And perhaps it is even more important that we remember this period of time. When we mark Yom Hashoah (“Holocaust Remembrance Day”) in the spring, we recall the enormity of the destruction of European Jewry and say, “never again” to genocide and mass murder.

But we also need to say “never again” to the subtle biases, the weighted laws and the community acceptance which can potentially be a prelude for greater destruction.

There is evil in our world and we need to face it. As we gather around our own menorahs this week to usher in the celebration of Hanukkah, we will be lighting up the darkness. Le us use that opportunity to, like Hershel, identify our goblins and seek to vanquish them. And when they move on, we’ll seek to do it again.