Chanukah is like an Artichoke

You peel an artichoke from its outside layers all the way into its innermost heart. So too over the centuries Chanukah has developed layers of understanding, each of which has a contemporary message.

At its outermost and most recent layer, Chanukah has become a symbol of overt Jewish pride.

Since the first public lighting of a large hanukkiah in Union Square, San Francisco in 1975, such ceremonies have proliferated all over the world from Siberia to this year for the first time, Sanibel Island in Florida. These ceremonies literally bring Jews out of the woodwork, many who practice few if any other Jewish rituals throughout the year— turn out to publicly affirm their Jewish identity and pride.

The next inner layer is the famous story of the “little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days.

The story appears for the first time in the Talmud (B. Shabbat 21B) at the very least 300 years after the true events of the Hanukah story.  It is a lovely story about how when we finally defeated the Assyrian Greek troops, we wanted to rededicate the holy temple in Jerusalem by rekindling the flame that burned continually on the altar. Alas, only a small cruse of oil was found, enough to last for one day, and it takes eight days to prepare new oil. Miraculously, the legend tells, the “little cruse of oil lasted for eight days.”

This story, familiar to every Jewish religious school child is charming, but it is actually as close to the “real” reason we celebrate Chanukah as Santa Claus is to the real reason committed Christians celebrate Christmas.

For the real story of Hanukah, we have to delve to the next layer of the artichoke.

 In the second pre-Christian century a civil war broke out among the Jews of Judaea. At that time, Judaea was under the rule of the Assyrian Greek Seleucid empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

The conflict pitted the wealthy who wanted to assimilate into Greek culture against those Jews who wanted to remain loyal to their religious practices. When the conflict reached the point where Jews were fighting against Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, Antiochus sent in his troops to quell the fighting and to solve the problem by outlawing all Jewish practice and study.

For the first time in history, though, an armed struggle for religious liberty ensued. After a three year battle the Maccabees drove Antiochus’ troops from Judaea and won the right to practice their religion. During the years that Antiochus outlawed Judaism, his troops had polluted the Temple and sacrificed forbidden pigs on the sacred altar. Chanukah means” dedication. When the Jews rededicated their Temple, they declared an eight-day festival to compensate for the main fall harvest festival of Sukkot that had been proscribed.

But at an even more inner layer, Chanukah is a winter “festival of lights” to bring light to the darkest time of the year.

In that regard it is similar to many ancient cultures that found ways to celebrate light near the time of the winter solstice. It is human nature for as long as we can remember to celebrate light at the darkest time of the year.

What does that mean to us?

So many people live in darkness, and we have the power through saying nice things or doing kindly acts to bring light into their lives.

The famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 -1894) was a sickly boy. The winters in his home city of Edinburgh, Scotland are cold and dark. Each evening back then Leerie the Lamplighter would light the gas streetlights in his neighborhood. Here is what a small act of kindness meant to a sickly young boy:

The Lamplighter

by Robert Louis Stevenson

My tea is nearly ready, and the sun has left the sky.

It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by.

Each night when it is teatime, and before you take your seat

With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,

And my papá’s a banker and as rich as he can be,

But I, when I am stronger, and can choose what I would do,

O Leerie, I’ll go ‘round at night and light the lamps with you

For we are very lucky with a lamp before our door

And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more

And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,

O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight.

That poem expresses the true heart of Chanukah’s message. Each of us has the power to bring light into someone else’s life And each time we use that power, we make our world a better and brighter place.

To Seek the Blessing

With the celebration of Thanksgiving fresh in ourminds, the Torah reading this week reaches the climax of the Story of Jacob. I see a connection. In my mind these two seemingly different topics dovetail beautifully.

Life can often be very difficult. In 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Governor Wilbur Cross of Connecticut appealed to the indomitable human spirit in his Thanksgiving proclamation: “It has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator… for the blessing that have been our common lot … for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long search after truth; for liberty and for justice… that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our harvest Home.”

With these mighty words Governor Cross looked beyond the ravages of the Great Depression that affected every citizen and inspired people to seek and find the blessings in their lives. It was the same quality exhibited by our patriarch Jacob who also overcame trial and tribulation to seek and find a blessing from God.

But, you might ask, “A blessing! What right and what hope should Jacob have had to seek a blessing from God?”  Had he not taken advantage of his older brother Esau to extort the lion’s share of the family inheritance from him?  Had he not stood before his blind father swearing he was Esau in order to steal his father’s blessing?  

People fairly ask: “Why does an unsavory character like Jacob become Israel, the namesake of the Jewish people?  Why do you take your name from a trickster and a thief?”

It is a good question, and it has good answers.

First of all, Jacob paid and paid for his evil deeds.  We would not be wrong if we counted the years after he left home as twenty years of hard time in the Laban Penitentiary in Haran. Laban tricked him time and again, and “often,” Jacob exclaimed, “scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night.  Sleep fled from my eyes.”

Second, he honestly and eagerly sought Esau’s forgiveness, and he did not merely attempt to placate his brother with empty words.  The size of the gift Jacob insisted Esau accept-and to his credit Esau was reluctant to do so — more than compensated his brother for the loss of the birthright inheritance.

And last and most important, Jacob is our role model and our namesake because despite every reason for doing so, he refused to give up hope. 

He stumbled and fell, as we all do.  He paid for his misdeeds many times over.  And when it seemed that all was lost, he wrestled with everything he had been and everything that he had done.  He proclaimed to the Eternal One  in the midst of his struggle, “I will not let You go until You bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Though the encounter left him wounded, he wrenched genuine blessing from the depths of his anguish and found the ability to face the future with courage and hope.  In that, I submit, he is a wonderful role model for all of us!

Why Chanukah is Important

Many people think of the eight-day festival of Chanukah, which runs this year from the evening of December 10 – December 18, as “the Jewish answer to Christmas.” 

Others have learned that Chanukah is about “a little cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days.” The truth is the cruse of oil is no more the reason Jews celebrate Chanukah than Santa Claus is the reason committed Christians celebrate Christmas. 

Here then is a short summary of why Chanukah is important:

 Long ago in Judaea (about 165 BCE), peace and prosperity reigned, but tension lurked beneath the surface.  The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea, and they were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.

At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea.  One group was Jews loyal to their religion and their ancient Covenant with God.  They wanted to preserve and practice their ancient heritage.

There was another group of Jews at that time as well.  Most of them were wealthy and thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks.  They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.

So, this second group of Jews stopped practicing their religion.  They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city state.  If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business.  Instead of studying the Torah, observing Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.

There was much tension between these two groups of Jews, and eventually they started fighting with each other.  It was a Jewish civil war.

When he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea, Antiochus sent in his troops.  He outlawed all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.

The Maccabees (the name adopted by the Jews who took up arms against Antiochus’ army) fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea.  They fought for the first time in history for the cause of religious liberty. And they won!

The Story of Chanukah teaches is an important lesson for all of us today.  Religious freedom and the right to be different are precious rights that we should never take for granted. 

Thanksgiving Prayer

Bridging the Gap

Between Deuteronomy 15:4 and 15:11

For many years I have pondered the contradiction found in the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy.  Verse four says:  “There shall be no needy among you.” But a few sentences later in verse eleven, we read, “The poor shall never cease out of the land.” As Thanksgiving approaches, I have written the following poem to address the contradiction. 

Thanksgiving soon will be here,

A grand and special day, 

So I opened up the Good Book

To see what it has to say.

I find in Deuteronomy

A glorious proclamation:

“There shall be no needy among you 

In any land or nation!” (15:4)

What a glorious vision that is!

If only it were true,

But I note a few lines further 

That we have much work to do

“There will never cease to be those in want,” (15:11)

The very next paragraph reads.

How can two such opposite views

Be almost rubbing knees?

The answer lies between 

The conflicting thoughts we heard,

But we must follow closely

And take to heart God’s words!

There will be no poor about!

That will only happen when,

All of us work together

To make that time “Now,’ not “Then!”

But we all know the time’s not near

When all will heed God’s wish

So those of us who really care 

Must step up to the dish.

Those of us who’ll read this

Are comfortable no doubt.

But all too many on God’s earth 

Surely do without

Without a home to keep them dry

And clothes to keep them warm

From snow and sleet and wind and rain

From every passing storm

Others strive just to exist

Without enough to eat

Try feeding five on minimum wage.

That’s surely no mean feat.

And don’t forget those in our midst

Who have much that they own,

But suffer sadness deep inside

And feel so all alone.

Loneliness was always real

But now things are much worse

In this time of the Pandemic

It’s a veritable curse.

“For just such a time as this,” (Esther 4:4)

God calls on us to serve

Because so many suffer

And lack what they deserve

A sense that life has purpose

And hope for a new day

Will continue to elude too many

Before Corona goes away.

So let’s focus on the “Giving”

This coming holiday

To enrich the lives of those who lack

In a meaningful way!

 There is so much

That still needs to be done,

Before our world and God’s will

Truly become one!

May we give thanks for all our blessings

With hearts and hands unfurled

To embrace God’s challenge to us

To repair our broken world!

It is Election Day, and I Am Very Sad

It is Election Day, and I am very sad.

A CNN headline explains why: “Officials brace for lines and lawsuits as the polls open on Election Day.”

I am old enough to remember when we greeted Election Day as a real holiday – a joyous celebration of a free and open balloting to choose our countries leaders.

Opposing candidates disagreed on the issues – often strongly – but the personal attacks, insults and accusations of criminal behavior were not part of the tableau.

I am beyond distressed by the news clips of people standing outside in frigid weather waiting hours to cast their ballots Why?  Voting is both a right and great privilege of American citizenship. Our country owes all of its citizens sufficient polling places with sufficient staff to ensure that no one must wait an inordinate amount of time to vote.

In all my 53 years of voting – wherever I have lived – I never waited more than 15 minutes to vote. Every American citizen should be able to say the same thing. There is no reason that I should have that privilege just because I have always lived in “nice” neighborhoods. 

Counting the ballots

Even in the pre computer days of Paleozoic technology, people voted, the ballots were tabulated and by the next morning at the latest, we knew who had won.

I am sure almost all of us either remember or have seen in history books the early headlines proclaiming Dewey the victor over Truman in the 1948 election.  But by the next day, all was sorted out. 

This year we will wait days, perhaps even weeks to have final results, and the entire process will be marked by cries of fraud. 

Unless the victory of one of the candidates is completely overwhelming, accusations of a crooked election will cast a pall over the entire process

Never in my life have I heard an incumbent temporize when asked if he would accept the results of the election. 

Seriously!

I can imagine the anguish Barack Obama must have felt when after losing the popular ballot by more than 3 million votes, the Electoral College tally made Donald Trump the winner of the 2016 election.

And yet with the grace and class that marked his eight years in the White House, Mr. Obama did all one could ask and more to graciously turn over the reins of power.

Unlike many, I do not call for the abolition of the Electoral College, but I do call for fair and equitable access to our countries sacred right and privilege to vote.

No matter what the outcome of today’s vote, we must continue to work hard to promote the ideals in which we believe and preserve the rights that we see threatened. 

Unlike many, I do not see the end of American democracy hinging on what happens today. But I do see how much is broken and needs fixing in our country. No matter what, we dare not despair.

But still …

It is election day and I am very sad.

An Invitation

Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1- Genesis 22:24) Contains two of the Torah’s most important stories. 

We cannot fully understand the vital lessons of the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Binding of Isaac unless we read them in conjunction with one another. 

In addition to these two stories, the portion contains an additional lesson that could very well save your marriage.

For all of these reasons you do not want to miss our Shabbat Welcome Friday evening, November 6 at 7:30 or our Shabbat morning Torah study Saturday, November 7 at 9:30 AM.

An interesting Bat Yam debate has arisen: should our weekly quiz questions be tougher so that winning a virtual candy bar will be more difficult or should the questions continue to encourage as many people as possible to answer? I welcome your thoughts.

In the meantime, this week’s question is: How old is Sarah when Isaac is born?

If you want the Zoom links to these sessions, please send an email to rabbistephenfuchs@gmail.com. If you are answering the virtual candy bar quiz question, please put, “Quiz” in the subject line. 

Why God Chose Abraham

How well I remember the moment that ignited my lifelong passion for teaching how Jews read and understand Scripture!

During an interfaith discussion in 1974, A Christian Minister remarked: “Abraham was like a lottery winner chosen by an unexplained act of God’s Grace.” 

I realized at that moment that many non-Jewish clergy were ignorant of the Jewish interpretations of Scripture found in post-biblical Jewish writings. Replacing that lack of awareness with understanding became a major focus of my life from then on.

Two Midrashic stories illustrate why God’s choice of Abraham was anything but random.

When Abraham was born, the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter (Genesis !0:8-12).  Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born that will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed.  Abraham’s father hides him in a cave.

At the age of three he walks out of the cave and being a most precocious child asks: “Who created the heavens and the earth and me?”  He looked up at the sun and imagined that was the creative force.  So he worshipped it all day.  That night the moon came out. And he thought the moon must be stronger than the sun.  So he worshipped the moon all night.  When in the morning the sun came out again, Abraham reasoned that there must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation.  (Bet ha-Midrash 2:118ff)

So, according to this story, Abraham at a very young age chose God, and that helps explain why God chose him. 

Another story tells that when Abraham was a boy his father Terach was a merchant who had a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods.  One day, Terach had to go on a trip and left Abraham in charge of the store.  While he was cleaning up, he accidentally broke one of the idols.  Rather than try to hide it from his father, he placed a stick in the hands of the largest idol in the shop and left the broken idol on the floor.

When his father came home, he demanded that Abraham tell him what happened.

Abraham answered that the broken idol was misbehaving and the bigger idol beat him with the stick.

         “Fool,” said his father, “Don’t you know that idols can’t do anything?”

         “If so,” answered Abraham, “Then why do you worship them?” (found in several sources, notably, Bereshit Rabbah 38:13)

The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry and further explains why God chose Abraham to begin the fourth society and present an entirely different idea of and approach to God.    

Psalm Comfort in a Time of Uncertainty

Two seemingly contradictory ideas anchor Jewish thought.

On one hand, beginning with Genesis’ story of Creation, is the notion that our lives matter. They have purpose and meaning, and God charges us with responsibility for what happens on this earth.

But there is also an acknowledgment that our lives are but a fleeting eyeblink.

Psalm 8 articulates the contrast:

“When I behold the heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established, what is humanity that You are mindful of them, and our progeny that you take notice of them.  But You have made us little lower than the angels and crowned us with honor and glory.” (Psalm 8:4-5)

Psalm 90 further enlightens us:

Of all the 150 Psalms, tradition attributes only Psalm 90 to (the unquestionably all-time most important Jew) Moses. There we read of God’s majestic sovereignty: “Before the mountains were brought forth or even before You formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” (Psalm 90: 2)

The Psalm eloquently reminds us that in God’s view, “A thousand years … are like yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90)

In the grand scheme of things what we deem so crucial will pass by quickly, and our earthly journey will end. But the Psalm urges us to not only be aware of this reality but to confront it head on and, “to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”

During this time of frightful uncertainty, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by Covid-19, the upcoming presidential election and the fears it engenders and whatever individual concerns threaten our well-being.

In the face of all that uncertainty the Psalm concludes with the home that God’s graciousness will be clear to us and that our efforts to make this world a better place really do matter. (Psalm 90:17)

The leading (18th -19th centuries) Hasidic Sage Simcha Bunam taught:  Each of us should have two pockets. In one should be a note, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the other, “For my sake the world was created.”

When we feel puffed up with our sense of importance, we should look at the first note to remind ourselves that we are merely specks of dust.  When we are feeling helpless in the face of the realities that confront us, we should look at the second to reassure ourselves that we are here to make a positive difference in the world in whatever ways we can.

Our tradition urges each of us to find the balance between these polar assertions of Jewish thought. 

 But when life threatens to throw us into complete despair, let us join the urgent prayer of the Psalmist that God will help us. “establish the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90:17) and have faith that our efforts to make a better world really do matter.

The Stage is Set

The narrative in Genesis 2:4-11 represents three attempts by God to have human beings do what the Eternal One wants us most to do: Establish a just caring and compassionate society.  

First attempt: Garden of Eden.  

Eden was a world of no birth, no death, a place where one did not have to work very hard, and in my opinion, and no sexuality.  Sexual awareness is what the first couple discovered when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge.        

Second attempt: Post Eden-pre flood

God established a second society after Eden  with new ground rules.  We had sex, were born, died and had to work hard. This society did not work out either. Cain killed Abel, and things went downhill from there.  Finally, God decides to flood the earth and picks Noah, “a righteous man in his age” (GN 6:9) to survive the flood and rebuild the world afterwards.

Now we are all aware from studies of anthropology or ancient literature that many cultures had their stories of a deluge.  More noteworthy than the similarities between these stories and the flood story (of which there are many) are the vital differences. 

  • Only in the biblical flood story does God decide to destroy the earth because of its moral failure.  The Torah presents to us a good, caring, God wanting human beings to -as God’s raison d’etre – establish a kind, workable world.  The Torah reports that corruption and lawlessness (Hamas) were rampant in the land. Therefore, God regretted making the earth and decided to destroy it. (GN 6:5, 6 and 11).
  • Unlike the other ancient flood stories where the hero is chosen at the caprice of the gods, God chooses Noah because he alone in his age is righteous. (GN 6:9) 

Now the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 108a) records an interesting argument between two sages.  Rabbi Yohanan who argued that Noah was righteous only in comparison with others of his age who were so bad.  On the other hand, Resh Lakish contends Noah’s righteousness even in an age when the culture was so evil makes him all the more praiseworthy than if he lived in an era where there were other examples of righteous behavior that he could have followed.  

After the flood God tried a third time to have humanity establish an acceptable world with three very significant new ground rules: 

  •   God makes human beings accountable for administering a system of justice where evil doers are punished (GN9:5). 
  •  For the first time God gives humanity permission to eat meat. (GN 9:3) 
  •   God promises unequivocally “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…nor will I ever again destroy every living being.”  (GN 8:21) 

By the way, God’s promise that God will not destroy the world again does not mean that we human beings are not capable of doing so.  When God created Adam and Eve, the Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) says that God addressed them saying: “Pay heed that you do not corrupt or destroy My universe; for if you ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you.”

Third attempt: Post flood

Unfortunately, the third society gets off to a horrible start.  The first thing Noah does upon leaving the ark is plant a vineyard and get drunk.  Then Scripture records (GN 9:20)  Ham “saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers.” (GN 9:22) Now we cannot be sure exactly what that verse means, but the rabbis of the Midrash have a field day with that passage imagining anything from forced sexual contact to castration. (see discussion between Rav and Samuel in B. Sanhedrin 70a).  

Then we read of the Tower of Babel.  From a modern perspective I love the story of the Tower of Babel.  Perhaps the religious question non-Jews ask most frequently (second only to “Why do Jews not believe in Jesus?”) is “Why do we have to have all of these different religions.  Wouldn’t the world be better if there was just one religion instead of all the problems caused by religious difference?”

My response to this question is: “Whose religion would it be.  Would it be yours where the life, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension to heaven of Jesus is the defining religious motif?  Or would it be mine where the life and death of Jesus plays no role whatsoever?”

No, religious unity should not be our goal.  Rather respect for and appreciation of honest religious differences is what we need more of in this world

While exactly what happened is not clear from the biblical text, whatever it was it is clear that God did not like it.  Seen through Midrashic eyes the building of the tower was rebellion against God’s divinity and authority (Bereshit Rabbah 38:7).  According to another Midrash (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (Jerusalem Eshkol, 1983, pp. 78-79 and Midrash Ha Gadol 11:3) the wickedness of the generation of the tower was so great and their regard for human life so little that if a brick fell from a scaffold, all work would stop until the brick could be retrieved.  If, however, a person fell from a scaffold, they would just plaster over the injured party and build him into the tower.

We see through Midrashic eyes that society number three worked out no better than the first two.  Now God has a serious three-pronged dilemma.  

  • God still cares.  
  • God is still disappointed in the moral progress of the world.
  •   But God has promised never to destroy the earth again.

The answer to that dilemma, of course, is that God chooses the family of Abraham and Sarah and makes a sacred Covenant with them and their descendants. 

The Election: A Plea for Perspective

As I grow older I recall with increasing frequency many of the stories I first heard as a child.

I may have been seven or eight when Rabbi Avraham Soltes told the story at family Shabbat services of a King who wanted a signet ring with a motto engraved in it that would fit any occasion.

Many jewelers tried and failed to create such a ring until one-day a craftsman appeared at the palace with a design that contained three Hebrew letters: Gimel, (ג) Zayin (ז) and Yod (י).

In subsequent years, we have all heard – and likely quoted — the tag line but probably without the story.

When the king asked what this signified, the jeweler answered, “It is for the three Hebrew words, Gam Zeh Ya-avor – And this too shall pass.”

The rapidly approaching presidential election is a particularly good time to keep the king’s motto in mind. Why? One thing is very clear to me: 

That when the election results are in, nearly half of those who voted will be very disappointed.

Those who oppose either President Trump or former Vice-President Biden truly fear for the very future of our country if the one we do not favor wins the White House.

Whatever crisis you imagine will ensue if the “wrong” person to your mind is elected, I want to try to reassure you:  Gam zeh ya-avor –This too shall pass.

Maybe it is because I am getting older, but in all my years –since my mother took me to the polls where I could cast a mock vote (I liked IKE) in 1952, I have never heard doomsday rhetoric like I am hearing this election year.

I understand people are very concerned, and the intensity is no less whether it comes from those who fear a Trump or a Biden victory.

My plea is for a bit of perspective. 

 I have my own strong feelings about this election, and I urge each and every eligible individual to vote.  But no matter how the vote turns out, I do not believe the nation will topple if the “wrong” person is elected.

The American political system has a built in pendulum. It swings one way and then, as two hundred plus years of electoral history dating from 1788 teach us, the pendulum will swing back again. And so my plea is for perspective. Although nearly half of us will think that the election results are an unmitigated disaster, our Constitution will hold, our nation will endure, and as Rabbi Soltes taught me long ago:  Gam Zeh Ya-avor.