As this week’s Torah portion focuses on Joseph and his brothers, Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses another band of “brothers,” the Maccabees, and how their victory and the miracle of the oil can inspire us to shine our light on the rest of the world.
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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Mikeitz and also connects us to Hanukkah, asking about how the miracles happen and when miracles have happened for you.
[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Mikeitz from the Book of Genesis. It is the second of the parshiyot that focus on the life and growth of Joseph and his brothers and his Technicolor dreamcoat.
And it also coincides with another set of brothers. And that would be Judah Maccabee and his brothers. Because this is the week, of course, unless you're on some remote planet in the outer parts of the solar system, you would not have seen that it is actually Hanukkah this week. But I thought we would take some of the impetus from Parashat Mikeitz and use it to think about the holiday of Hanukkah. And I would just start by focusing on-- there's a beautiful passage in the 20-- page 21B, in tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud that starts with the question Mah Hanukkah, literally, what is Hanukkah?
Now if you think about it, you got a group of Talmudic sages sitting around. Are they really asking what is Hanukkah, like they didn't know? But it turns out, Hanukkah may be the most adapted and the most dramatically evolved of all of our Jewish holidays. And we see that in the contemporary language as well. Now, if you're listening to the podcast, and you've got kids in the car-- for example, maybe you're driving carpool-- I would just say, I'm going to talk a little bit quieter. Maybe you want to just turn down the volume just a tiny bit. Because what I want to start by saying is that the question of what's the true story of Hanukkah, what does Hanukkah mean, may be different than its historicity. Is there truth in Hanukkah? 100%. Is everything that we say about Hanukkah to our kids, and grandkids, and to our families, factually, historically correct? That's another challenge altogether.
So it turns out that there is this story that we all have been told, and maybe all of us have told it, about the jar of oil that was found when the Maccabees were able to win their battle against the Syrian Greeks, and they were able to, once again, have sovereignty over the temple. And they wanted to kindle the Ner tamid, but they only found one little jar of oil. It should not have been enough for more than one day, but miraculously it burned for eight.
Now that very often is the story, the miracle. It turns out we read about Hanukkah going back to the Apocrypha. We have one of the oldest sources, the Second Maccabees, which-- the Apocrypha is a collection of non-canonical books, the books that didn't make it into the Bible. And in Second Maccabees, we actually have the description of my Hanukkah. What is Hanukkah? And they refer to it as Sukkot in Kislev.
The holiday of Sukkot, the shaking of the lulav and etrog, the dwelling in little temporary harvest booths, and that's what the eight days, and that's what Hanukkah is all about. And it turns out historically, we believe, we don't have a mention of a jar of oil for centuries and centuries after the events of Hanukkah.
And it turns out that what they were probably doing with the eight days is that they wanted to observe the holiday that was most important then, the Hey Chag, the holiday, Sukkot, and so the eight days was the eight days of Sukkot that they observed in the month of Kislev, which is much later than it should normally be. And that most likely is the historical beginning of this holiday.
Why did the ancient rabbis of the Talmud create the narrative about the jar of oil? Well, they were in a fight for the meaning of Judaism, and they didn't want Hanukkah to be only about a militaristic victory. They wanted it also to be about God's miracle. So again, what's true and what's historical are not necessarily the same thing.
I would also want to tell you that miracles and Hanukkah are not located only in antiquity. By the way, there's a miracle that the Jewish people are still here and are still strong, that the few defeated the many, that this minority through history, when great civilizations have come and gone, and here we are, that's a miracle as well.
But I had a modern-day miracle happen to me at the beginning of my rabbinate. I was the rabbi of a wonderful congregation in Brooklyn Heights, New York. And one of my bar mitzvah students said to me, right after bar mitzvah, he said, "Rabbi Jacobs, would you come to my school and lead a Hanukkah assembly? We've never had one." And I said, "I'd be happy to." He said, "well, I got to first convince the headmaster. It's a very proper independent school in Manhattan, and we've never, ever had a Hanukkah assembly." So I said to my student, I said, "well, you go ahead and fight your way in there and I will be there, I promise." So finally, finally, finally this young little Maccabee convinces the headmaster to call me. I have to say, when I got the call, the headmaster was less than enthusiastic. And he was kind of like-- I don't know if any of you listening to the podcast ever saw the movie Paper Chase. You know, that very, very formal, very daunting character that was teaching at the Harvard Law School. Well, this headmaster had a little bit of that.
And he said, Rabbi Jacobs, "I would like to invite you to come to speak a little bit about this very, very, very minor holiday called Hanukkah." And I said, "well, listen, I am so honored. I would be thrilled to come. When do you want me to come?"
So he tells me the day. And I look at my schedule, I can do it. And I said, when do you want me to come, 10:30, noon? He said, "no, I think it would be better if you came before school."
"Yeah, at 8 o'clock in the morning, the boys will be fresh." It was an all-boys school.
I said, "really, 8 o'clock in the morning? Will it be required?"
"Well, not really, but you'll get a few. It'll be fine." So he did the dutiful thing. He invited me. But I got a feeling I was being set up. And that my young student, who was the equivalent of Judah Maccabee, fighting for the Jewish people, wanted to have, next to the Christmas assembly, a Hanukkah assembly.
So I arrived. And I wanted to not disappoint. So what can I do at 8:00 in the morning to 250 blazer-wearing young men who are sitting there half-awake? Well, I decide that I was going to put a hanukkiyah, the Hanukkah menorah, on the stage of this basement where we were meeting. And I was going to make eight points, one for each night. And after I made each of my points, I would light that next candle.
So I was going into my whole warm-up about the few over the many, and the holiday of Hanukkah, and I lit the first candle. And I turned around. My back is to the hanukkiyah. And I made my second point about being in a dominant culture, but still finding the ability to be proud and be distinct. And while I'm talking, the flame from the first candle, on its own, jumps to the second candle.
All of a sudden, I've got 250 boys paying perfect attention. They're sitting up straight, they're leaning forward, their eyes are bugging out of their heads. They cannot believe this. I make my third point, and yes, I know, you're guessing, you're going here with me-- and after my third point, the flame jumped to the third, and then the fourth, and then the fifth. And finally, at the end, even the headmaster's jaw was on the ground. They were just amazed.
And I said, and that is the joy and the miracle of Hanukkah. And I'm telling you, I only had 10 minutes, but those 10 minutes, every single one of those students, they'll never forget this moment. I'll never forget. And then walking out, the headmaster is, with his arm around me, saying, Rabbi Jacobs, that was amazing. I said, "well, I'm just happy you gave me this opportunity." He said, "will you come back next year?" And I'm thinking, I can't come back next year. There's no way I could do this again. I have no idea how it exactly happened. It's one of those mysteries. It's a miracle. And this young man is now grown with children of his own. And I think there are a lot of miracles about Jewish life. And I think we have many, many of them.
I want to give you one more point that I think sometimes is the sore point. Here, I know I'm in New York, and you already see the menorahs and the trees kind of maybe having a little bit of an argument. I go by stores and there's a menorah next to a tree, and it looks like they're kind of dueling symbols. You go into buildings, and there they are again. So the proximity of Hanukkah and Christmas, certainly in North America and other parts of the world, has made Hanukkah try to get a little bit more oomph and a little bit more of a kind of an anchor in Jewish lives. But I just would point out that the whole idea of gift-giving is actually going back more than to the experience of Jews in North America.
So in the Shulchan Aruch, the definitive 16th-century code of Jewish law, it explains that the candles of a hanukkiyah can be viewed only to recall the miracle and not for any other purpose. Which means that when you are after the candle lighting, and you have that half hour or a little bit longer to enjoy the light, the Shulchan Aruch says you can't count money. It's an example of something you can't use the light of the hanukkiyah for. And I think what it really is telling us is that that's a time to not focus on material things. So I know this is going to sound a little bit like Rabbi Ebenezer Scrooge, but what if this year, once we kindle the menorah, that we spend those minutes with our family, with our friends, either talking about the deeper meaning, the ways that we can be the servant candles, the shamash, and kindle light for others. Maybe it's a way that we volunteer one night, or talk about some urgent challenge before the Jewish people or the world. Can we put back the meaning, so we continue to evolve and make it meaningful? And I think that's just one of the ways that we can do that.
Just last thought. I was having breakfast with a friend in this diner in New York City, not that long ago, last year during Hanukkah. And I walked in, and the Hanukkah menorah was lit, but it was lit backwards. And so I went up to the cashier. I said, first of all, it's beautiful, you have this hanukkiyah. Thank you so much for publicizing our holiday and sharing our light. I said, but you actually have it reversed. So if you want-- it's an electric menorah-- I'll just go and change it.
And he looked at me. He said, you know what? Somebody just came in here 20 minutes ago and told me that was the right way. And now you're telling me it's the wrong way. I said, well, I actually am a rabbi. And I'm not trying to make your life difficult, but it just would be one of those nice things.
He said, well, you know, you light from left to right. So there's still a lot of things that the world doesn't understand about us, but let them understand the light of our community, the light of our caring, the light of our strength, the light of our learning, the light of our holiness. And I hope that that will emanate from not only the hanukkiyah, the beautiful menorahs, but also from every part, from the synagogues, to the camps, to the all the places where we do our holy work.
So wherever you are, and you're preparing for the holiday, it's about sufganiyot, jelly donuts. It's about latkes. It's about few over the many. It's about the changing observance, and even the changing narrative of the holiday. And so Hanukkah has become more important today, I believe, than maybe it was in earlier epics.
And I think that is an opportunity for us to create more meaning, and more vitality, and more light. So I wish everyone a Chag Orim Samecha, a very, very joyous and meaningful holiday.
And if during the candle lighting, you maybe, just for those 30 minutes, choose not to give those gifts, but maybe just give the gift of listening, and of singing, and of remembering, and of thinking, that just may put the focus right where it's supposed to be all along. Happy, Happy Hanukkah.
[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.
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On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat.