Whenever a Jewish holiday rolls around, two things happen: First, you think about and plan for the practical requirements and customs of the day, which always involve food, but second, ideally, you contemplate the significance of the holiday.
On Hanukkah, you need to pull out the menorah, find last year’s left-over candles and probably buy new ones, make sure you have matches, make or buy latkes, decide on apple sauce vs. sour cream (or get both), order “sufganiot” (jelly donuts, Israeli style), invite people over for a gathering or get yourself invited to one, and search for and hopefully find the Hanukkah song sheets your kids used in religious school, as well as your dreidel supply!
Hopefully you will also take a few moments to review the meaning of the holiday and think about its relevance to you this year.
For me, this year, I’m contemplating the meaning of miracles.
Hanukkah is a holiday of one central miracle—the oil in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that lasted for eight days despite the fact that only one day’s supply was on hand. Clearly this was a miracle that is considered to be the work of the divine. Do I believe it really happened that way? Personally, I grapple with this kind of miracle, just as I struggle to believe in a deity who acts in history. The Torah is filled with such stories, but do we really take them literally? Some do, but many of us do not. But invariably they offer lessons and express enduring values. Miracle or not, I love the tradition of eight days of candle-lighting and the nightly build-up to the fully lit menorah. What a beautiful custom that allows for so many opportunities to celebrate with friends and family.
There is, however, a second definition of miracle that resonates with me that has to do solely with humankind and not with the divine. A miracle can be a highly improbable event or accomplishment that is welcome and surprising. I was witness to one such event this past weekend in my own Jewish backyard. Approaching the eve of Hanukkah, my Conservative synagogue, Congregation Kehillath Israel, was rededicated in a well-attended ceremony to mark the beautiful building renovation that has taken several years to complete. The new space now comprises a campus model providing a home to several minyans, an inclusive special needs program, another Conservative congregation and a Russian Jewish center.
This new campus is truly miraculous on so many levels: raising the funds to enable the project, incorporating the other partner entities, adding a component of senior housing to the project—this vision initially seemed like pie in the sky to many of us. There was no divine intervention here, just the sweat, tears and generosity of an amazing community of donors, lay leaders, supporters and professionals who kept believing and persisting under the inspired leadership of KI senior Rabbi William Hamilton and KI president David Williams. The end result was tantamount to a Hanukkah miracle.
For me, the real miracle of Hanukkah has always been that of human tenacity—the faith and persistence of the Jewish people to maintain its values and existence against all odds.
From Judah Maccabee to the heroes responsible for the new Kehillath Israel and its campus of partners, I say, “Yasher koach”—good for you and happy Hanukkah!
Together we celebrate the miracle of renewed commitment to a bright Jewish future as we kindle our Hanukkah lights.
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