Archive for Hanukkah

Miketz: Waiting in Hope

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

Dear Friends:

There is so much sadness in the world. As I write this details are still coming out from Newtown, Connecticut- a mere 53 miles from Poughkeepsie- where a madman killed children and adults alike in the elementary school. After every shooting, every murderous act, we ask why- but it seems that not much changes.

So how do we find hope in a world which can seem so cruel?

This is not a new problem. In fact, I’d say it’s the problem that Hanukkah comes to address, and it’s not coincidental that our Torah portion, Miketz, usually falls during the holiday of lights. The Torah portion is the middle section of the story of Yosef and his brothers; in the beginning of the portion, Yosef is in Pharaoh’s prison, but by the end, he is the Prime Minister of Egypt, and his long-estranged brothers are seeking food from his treasury.

Twice Yosef goes down into a pit of darkness- once when his brothers turn against him and once when Potiphar’s wife accuses him- and twice Yosef rises up, but what really constrains Yosef is not external walls but the pain of his heart, the loneliness and alienation and longing for family that stays with him even after he has reached the heights of power. In this week’s portion, Yosef attains a great station, but the reconciliation that his heart seeks is not yet ready. We read the Torah portion this week and our heart breaks a bit, because we know that healing is almost at hand, but we must wait, as Yosef must, for love to burst forth.

Similarly, Hanukkah asks us to take a leap of faith- not by believing something without evidence, but by living in such a way that our lives bring light into darkness even if we can’t see the world change before our eyes. The Maccabees had no assurance of success when they started their struggle against the foreign power; we have no assurance of success when we struggle to transform our society and our world from its current state of conflict and violence into a place of peace, security and justice. Let me be clearer: we have no assurance of success in the short run, not in our lifetimes or perhaps that of our children. Yet the “leap of action” (to quote Heschel) that Judaism asks us to take is to do the right and good anyway, because we believe that the redemption of the world is not only possible but our particular task.

It’s hard to wait for a better world that seems just out of reach, but remember Yosef and his brothers: he kept hoping that they would become worthy of brotherhood, and yet was shocked to tears when his brother Yehudah showed an extraordinary largeness of heart towards their youngest brother Binyamin. Things can take a long time and change quickly; do not despair. Yosef never stopped wanting brotherhood from his brothers, and ultimately there was reconciliation. The Maccabees never stopped dreaming of a Judaism restored, and their story has kept hope alive for two thousand years and more. We light Hanukkah candles because we refuse to let darkness define human destiny. We will hope but we will also act, and with us and others of good faith and courage, we will eventually achieve shalom.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,


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Miketz/ Hanukkah: Small Things Grow

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

Happy Holiday of Lights!

Our Torah portion this week continues the story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt, and we read a special haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukkah. This haftarah comes from the book of Zechariah, who exhorted the Jews returning from the first exile to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. He tells the High Priest, Yehoshua, to claim his role and promises that if he does so faithfully and ethically, the greater redemption will come:

“Hearken well, 0 High Priest Joshua, you and your fellow priests sitting before you! For those men are a sign that I am going to bring My servant the Branch” (Zech. 4:8, JPS translation)

“My servant,” in the context above, probably means the proper king of Israel, whose restored sovereignty would show that the redemption from exile was complete. Yet commentators have puzzled over the final phrase: “My servant, the branch,” or “I will bring My servant like a growing plant.” The final word, tzemach, means sprouting or growing plant, and could simply mean, in context, that redemption doesn’t happen all at once, but unfolds over time.

Hirsch sees an additional meaning in the image of “branch” or “growing plant.” For Hirsch, the metaphor of plant or sprout has the resonance of great things growing out of small things. He compares it to how an acorn grows into an oak: when you see an acorn, you can hardly imagine a huge oak tree, and when you see the tree, you can hardly imagine that it began as something you hold in your hand.

Similarly, the ultimate redemption of humankind begins with small and imperceptible progress, and will unfold over time into something great and amazing.

That, to me, is another connection to Hanukkah, for every great historical accomplishment begins with small things: a conversation, an idea, a single courageous act. Setting aside for today any controversies about the historicity of the traditional Hanukkah story, we might simply imagine that the eventual victory of the Maccabees began with one action, one word, one decision. . . .and grew into something that changed history, just like the acorn grows into the towering oak.

Seen this way, Zechariah’s promise to the High Priest is also a call to every generation: do not despair that your deeds are too little and the darkness is too much, for great things grown out of small acts of faith and courage.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,


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Hanukkah: Inner Freedom

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Yeshiva University philosopher and scholar, once pointed out that contrary to popular American interpretations, Hanukkah could not really be a holiday celebrating the political freedom of our pre-millennial ancestors from their Seleucid overlords, because that freedom wasn’t very long-lasting. Rome arrived in the land of Israel only about a hundred years later and the laws of Hanukkah as given in the Talmud come from a time when political independence was already a fading memory under Roman rule.

To use Soloveitchik’s analogy- it makes sense to celebrate the Fourth of July as long as America stands strong and free. Yet if – God forbid- the USA somehow fell or was taken over by another political entity, could we imagine that fireworks and the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the Fourth would mean the same thing as they do today?

So for Soloveitchik, Hanukkah could not celebrate political freedom, because the freedom obtained by the Maccabees was short-lived and irrelevant to the lives of most Jews in history. Therefore- according to this understanding- Hanukkah is not about yamim ha-hem– “their days”- but zman ha-zeh, “our time.” That is, the political and military achievements of the Maccabees are incidental to the reason we re-enact the core event of the story, which is lighting the Hanukkiah, representative of the Menorah [lampstand] of the ancient Temple. Re-creating the illumination of the ancient Temple- the place of the Shechinah, or Divine Presence- is not dependent on political circumstances. It is only dependent on our desire to make our homes places of the Sacred, dwelling-places of hope, faith, reverence and spiritual renewal.

Wishing you and yours a Hanukkah of light and love,

Rabbi Neal

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Hanukkah: The Continual Miracle

Dear Friends:

It is a very rare occasion when I get so many inquiries about something in the popular press that I use my weekly Torah study to offer reaction, but this week I’m going to make a rare exception, for two reasons:

1) It’s about Hanukkah, and it’s still Hanukkah.

2) Hanukkah rarely has two Shabbatot, but this year it does, which means there is a special haftarah read for the occasion, which won’t be read again for many years (till 2026, if is to be believed.)

With that, let’s first start with the inquiries I’ve been getting, which can be largely paraphrased as “What the heck did you think of what David Brooks wrote about Hanukkah in the New York Times?”

Well, in brief, I thought it was great, but I’d better explain why. Brooks retells the story of Hanukkah by casting it as a paradigmatic tale of the ironies of history, in which we (American Jews) celebrate “good guys” (the Maccabees) who were really fanatics fighting a civil war against their assimilated, Westernized brethren. The Maccabees, seen this way, look an awful lot like the “bad guys” (i.e., religious fanatics) in the Middle East today, whom we wish would just assimilate some Western values and not be so fanatical, as it were.

So if Brooks makes a none-too-subtle comparison between the Maccabees and contemporary religious extremists, why would I think his column is great, and even more importantly, why celebrate Hanukkah at all?

I liked his column because, to me, a fundamental Jewish value is smashing idols, which are not so much hunks of wood and stone but rather dead and immobile and unreflective ways of thinking. I appreciate the efforts of an iconoclast because a bit of idol-smashing keeps us honest, and in truth, the notion that Jews are always on the side of right and good versus the evil oppressors who want to kill us is our own idol of victim status and moral self-satisfaction.

Please note: the Hanukkah story, like any other important story, can be told at different levels of complexity depending on the audience. I have no desire to ruin Hanukkah for young children, who deserve their Hasmonean heroes, but neither do I wish to tell children’s stories to grownups, who can, in fact, handle the truth, and probably prefer it.

Not only that, but understanding the history of Hanukkah actually helps me appreciate the transcendent element even more, and this brings us to the once-a-decade (or so) haftarah for the second Shabbat of Hanukkah, from the book of 1 Kings. It’s the story of how King Shlomo [Solomon] commissioned the first Temple, and hired a guy named Hiram to oversee the work and make the stone and metal vessels and structures. In fact, this haftarah isn’t much more than the report of a successful building project, with the mention of the gold lampstands being the obvious connection to Hanukkah.

What this haftarah does, however, is complete the implicit narrative of Hanukkah that the ancient rabbis tell with the Torah and haftarah readings, which details the dedication of the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary] under Moshe, the building of the First Temple by Shlomo, and the building of the Second Temple by the generation of Zechariah (as we discussed last week.) The Maccabees rededicated the Second Temple, which was destroyed a few generations later by the Romans, which started the next major era of Jewish history.

By linking the Mishkan, the First Temple, and two phases of Second Temple history, the rabbis tell a larger story of Hanukkah, the story of how in every generation Jews found a way to dedicate themselves to religious ideals in the face of difficult historical challenges. That story doesn’t end with the Romans destroying Second Temple; rather, it continues in the observance of Hanukkah itself, which is in its very practice a continuation of the story of Jewish dedication. To me, that larger story- of Jews in every generation somehow finding a way to make the light shine- is only deepened by knowing the complexities and ironies and problems of Jewish history. Somehow, despite our flawed heroes, in every generation we’ve built something holy. Somehow, with our faults and divisions and conflicts, we’ve lived as a unique people despite all odds. Somehow, in the face of tremendous social and political barriers, with no lack of miscalculation on the part of our leaders, we’ve managed to find enough spiritual fuel to keep going past all logical limits, far outliving the empires that once oppressed our ancestors.

That’s also the real story of Hanukkah, and it’s more than enough for me.

Hag Urim Sameach,


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Hanukkah: Bringing Light

Good morning!

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, so let’s take a detour from our Torah readings for a Hanukkah thought or two.

Since we’re looking at the liturgical tradition this year, let’s see what the prayerbook has to say about Hanukkah. In the prayer which begins al ha’nissim, or “for the miracles,” which is a lengthy addition to the Amidah [standing prayer], we review the Hanukkah story, but with a decidedly theological perspective:

“. . . You gave the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few, and the defiled into the hands of the pure, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the malicious into the hands of those who engage in Your Torah. And You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your universe; and to Your nation, Israel, did You grant a great salvation and liberation . . . . ”  [translation taken from and full version here]

This version of the Hanukkah story has no little jar of oil, not much praise for the Maccabees, and pretty much says that the entire victory was a miracle from the Holy One. In this version of the story, Hanukkah is a remembrance of miracles that God did for us, and our response is thanks and praise.

That’s one perspective on the religious meaning of Hanukkah. Another perspective comes from the Torah portions we read every day of the holiday, taken from Bamidbar/ Numbers, chapter 7. This is the story of the dedication of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, in the days of Moshe, and what makes this story unusual is its repetition of the accounting of each gift that each prince brought on behalf of each tribe of Israel. The gifts were all equal, and the Torah goes out of its way to list each one separately, even though we can see that each prince brought the same set of dedication presents on behalf of his tribe.

To me, there’s an interesting tension between al ha’nissim and the Torah readings: the text from the siddur is all about what God did for us, and the text from the Torah is all about what we bring to God. I see the meaning of Hanukkah as the creative space between two basic religious orientations: the first being awareness and gratitude for wondrous things in our world, and the second being our response to that wonder, which is a bringing of the self into constantly increasing mindfulness of our obligations towards others and the world. To put it another way, if Hanukkah was only about remembering the military victory of our ancestors, it might be important, but it wouldn’t be a sacred practice; if it were only about gratitude for miracles, it would teach a spiritual and moral passivity that is the very opposite of the qualities we admire in the Maccabees.

Hence, the symbol of light, which is something we create, and yet reflects back to us the possibility of a transcendent experience. We bring the Hanukkah lights, and yet, like the gifts for the Mishkan, they point us to something beyond mundane concerns, an aspect of the Sacred which we can draw upon as we rededicate not a place, but ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom and happy Hanukkah,


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Shabbat Hanukkah: Bring Light!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

This year the calendar falls out such that there are two Shabbatot
during the week of Hanukkah, so we have two special haftarot taking
the place of the usual haftarah for each week.

This week we read from the prophet Zechariah, who lived at the time
when the Second Temple was being built (about 520 years before the
common era) after the first exile. Zechariah has a great vision of a
rebuilt and restored Temple service, so it’s easy to see how that
connects with Hanukkah, which remembers the rededication of that same
Second Temple a few hundred years later. In particular, in Zechariah
4, there is a vision of a golden menorah (lampstand), which again
provides an obvious connection to Hanukkah.

Somewhat subtler is the verse in Zechariah 4 which explicates the
vision of the menorah:

“This [the preceding vision of the golden menorah] is the word of the
LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit —
said the LORD of hosts. Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path
of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground! For he shall produce that
excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful!
Beautiful!'” (Zech. 4:6-7)

OK, once again, I can hear you asking: what’s a Zerubabbel? The answer
is, not a what, but a who: Zerubbabel was the grandson of an earlier
king of Judah, and he himself was a leader of the community that came
back from exile and started working on the Temple. Thus, when the
prophet says that the vision of the menorah is a word to Zerubbabel,
it means that the prophet is conveying to the leader of the community
a vision of what he must do, along with encouragement that he can
accomplish it.

Note that the Temple and its lights will be rebuilt “not by might, and
not by power, but by My spirit.” Some have seen in these words a
subtle hint on the part of the ancient rabbis that however much we
might admire the Maccabees, we ought not rely on military means to
secure redemption for our people. (That argument probably made a great
deal of sense in the time of the Roman occupation of Palestine but
it’s probably a moot point after the establishment of the State of

Another quite beautiful interpretation of “not by might, and not by
power” comes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived in Germany in
the late 1800’s. He says that this prophecy teaches that when our
efforts are oriented towards holy ends, we should never be discouraged:

“Let every human circle know, every individual person, even the
outwardly weakest and smallest, that as soon as he is penetrated with
My Spirit, and thereby places himself in the service of justice,
brotherly love, and holy living, he has the strength of giants in
accomplishing his work. . . .”

With this interpretation, what was in Biblical times the work of
building a physical structure is expanded to include all who toil to
create a more sacred world. It’s not by physical might or power of any
kind that the Divine Presence is made real to us, but by openness of
the soul and orientation towards the Holy. That’s a great message for
Hanukkah: that our work of justice and compassion is not held back by
the fact of our being ordinary, flawed human beings. We can accomplish
great things with nothing more than humble and open hearts- and
thereby bring light to the world.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,


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Hanukkah: Revealing Miracles

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah!

This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, which continues the story of
Yosef and his brothers, but today, following our theme this year of
looking at the application of Jewish practice, we’ll briefly consider
a more . . . (ahem) . . . .burning issue: where to put the Hanukkah
menorah, or Hanukkiah.

[“Menorah” just means “lamp,” and in the Bible, the “menorah” was the
seven-branched lamp in the Temple. A special menorah for Hanukkah is,
technically, a Hanukkiah.]

Many will know that the blessing we say after lighting the Hanukkiah
is called “al ha’nissim,” which is a short blessing of gratitude for
the “nissim,” or miracles, done in this season (of the year) in those
days (of the Maccabees.) The lighting of the Hanukkiah is a way of
doing what’s called “publicizing the miracle,” that is, proclaiming it
or displaying our re-enactment of it. Maimonides, [A.K.A. Rambam]
uses slightly different language in his book of Jewish law called the
Mishnah Torah: he says that we light the lamp near (or over) the door
of the house in order to “show and reveal” [l’ha’rot u’l’galot] the
miracle. (Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah, 3:3)

So why do so many people light their Hanukkiah on the dining room
table, or over the fireplace? Probably because of a practice inherited
from their ancestors to do so- it goes back many generations that in a
“time of danger” it was permissible to make the lighting of the
Hanukkah a private, family affair. In other words- if it wasn’t a wise
idea to draw attention to the fact that there were Jews celebrating a
holiday in the the house, one didn’t have to do so.

However, in contemporary North America, where by and large Jews are
not in danger, it would seem that the proper way to fulfill the
mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkiah would be to put it in a window or
doorway, to “make known” the miracle to those who pass by. In fact,
one can say “al hanissim” when seeing Hanukkah lights that are not
one’s own, even though the mitzvah is to light in each household.

Yesterday a major candidate for President of the United States
mentioned his belief that “nativity scenes and menorahs should be
welcome in our public places.” Whatever one’s political or legal
opinions about putting “nativity scenes and menorahs in public places”
(recognizing a difference between “public” in the sense of communally
owned, like City Hall, versus “public” in the sense of a space open to
all, like a privately owned shopping mall or plaza), what’s
interesting is that precisely to the extent that one feels safe as a
Jew in North America, one should, according to the traditional
practice, be willing to “go public” with Hanukkah lighting. This is
not an argument for a Hanukkiah which is 25 feet high- one doesn’t
have to be garish to make known the miracle- but only the observation
that putting a Hanukkiah where more people can see it is in keeping
with the traditional view of how to observe the mitzvah.

Seen this way, putting one’s Hanukkiah in the window is an act of
Jewish confidence, as it were. That, in turn, is an even greater
re-enactment of the history of the Maccabees than even lighting the
lights- we become the ones who say: “this is who I am, and this I
Hanukkah is not only when we remember the “days of old,” but when we
declare to ourselves and others who we and what we hold precious- today.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy Festival of Lights to all,


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