Rabbi Naomi's Chanukah Message

Rabbi Naomi’s Chanukah Message – 2022
The lives of most animals are guided by the cycle of the seasons. Only we humans seem to live with the creative tension between cyclical and linear life experiences. It occurred to me recently that two beloved Chanukah items can represent two modes of experiencing reality. 

The dreidel teaches us about cycles: the ever-changing seasons, the spinning of the planet giving us day and night, the pull of the moon as it waxes and wanes, the ups and downs of our lives, the revolving destinies of nations and empires, the rhythms of our bodies. As we spin and spin and spin, everything appears both to change yet stay the same.  
Outside my window, the remaining leaves on my apple tree are yellow, but I know with certainty that soon the tree will be bare, and then a few months from now there will once again be buds, leaves, blossoms, and eventually fruit. My little granddaughter Rivka loves to help us pick apples. Last year late in the fall, when she was about to turn three, she headed out to the garden with her basket and started to cry when she saw the apples were gone!  I assured her that they will return. Now, as a wise almost four-year-old, she has learned to trust in the cycle of the garden and can look forward to the future blessing of blooms and fruit. She understands that the seasons change, yet the cycle can be trusted to remain constant. (Though just this week she shed tears over having to wait through the winter to be able to swim in the river again! I feel the same!)

The Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) taught as follows: 

The world is a rotating wheel. It is like a dreidel, where everything goes in cycles. Human becomes angel, and angel becomes human. Head becomes foot and foot becomes head. Everything goes in cycles, revolving and alternating. All things interchange, one from another and one to another, elevating the low and lowering the high.  (Sichot Haran, sec. 40)
The menorah (or chanukiah) teaches us about linear movement.  We set the candles in place one by one, day by day.  We move from just a little bit of light on the first night to a festive blaze on the last.  We make progress. In the same way, ever since early human beings developed a sense of linear time, we have been counting minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia, and eons. We feel that we are on a trajectory from the past to the future.

I’ve just finished a wonderful book by science writer Gaia Vince titled, Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time. Vince writes of “a special relationship between the evolution of our genes, environment and culture,” which she calls “our evolutionary triad.” (p 5) Just as genetic and environmental evolution are essentially opportunistic; Vince reminds us that “cultural evolution has no direction; we are not necessarily ‘progressing’ toward something better.” A species will sometimes adapt to stress by losing abilities it possessed earlier, in the same way societies can lose technologies and practices. “One such ‘dark age’ occurred in ancient Greece following a series of devastating invasions and natural disasters. By 1200 B.C.E., Greeks were living in the ruins of their former civilization, no longer able to read and write.” (p 100) (Early Greek writing was lost before early Hebrew writing had developed; more on this later.) It has been suggested that the average homo sapiens today is not as bright as any of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who possessed a myriad of skills in hand-made technologies and navigation. (If most humans end up just pushing buttons all day, will we lose collective brainpower?) One lesson of the menorah is that time and evolution march on, but it takes conscious effort, multifaceted engagement with our world, and a good degree of luck and/or grace for evolution to lead to enlightenment.
As longtime members have heard me say over the years, I’m not fond of the idea that Chanukah is about the triumph of light over darkness. Here in the holy land of rural Humboldt we pay extra to enjoy real winter darkness, to see stars and planets without metropolitan light pollution. We know that our north coast forests and fields, gardens and orchards have evolved for long winter nights and seemingly endless summer days. When winter darkness descends, if we turn off our screens, we can turn inward, thinking and feeling deeply and slowly, wondering, and dreaming.  (If we really wanted to dispel winter darkness, wouldn’t we celebrate with a bonfire or at least a long-burning lamp instead of the kandelikos, as we say in Ladino, the little candles that last only a few minutes?) I love the dark and see no need to work against it.
I also am not sympathetic to the idea that Chanukah is about religious freedom triumphing over tyranny. The Maccabee warriors (whom we meet only in the Christian bible, not the Hebrew Tanach) are described as religious zealots ready to kill their brethren for worshipping differently than they do. This is not a tale of religious tolerance, not a message to teach our children. I understand why the ancient rabbis who redacted the Hebrew Bible left that story out. The only kind of Maccabee I want to encounter are the chocolate ones, so I can bite off their heads!
Nor am I happy with the idea that Chanukah is about the victory of Jewish virtue over Greek debauchery. As the Books of Maccabees suggest, Greek culture appealed to many residents of ancient Judea, just as it appeals to us today: philosophy, architecture, poetry, theater, art – all gifts from the Greeks. It’s interesting to note that the First Book of Maccabees was written in Hebrew but survived only in Koine Greek (i.e., common, post-classical), and Book Two was originally written in Greek, and never rendered in Hebrew; it was Greek speaking Jews of Alexandria who preserved these texts. The fascinating history and literature of the Hellenistic Jews of antiquity is greatly overlooked.  (I warmly recommend Hellenism & Heritage by Erich Gruen and Jews in the Greek Age by Elias Bickerman.) As much as we revere the antiquity of Hebrew, it’s humbling to note that early Greek “has a long and well-documented history…spanning 34 centuries,” and predating Paleo-Hebrew by several hundred years. (See https://www.britannica.com/topic/Greek-language and Joel Hoffman, In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, a terrific book!)
So, if we turn away from notions that denigrate darkness, distort history, and preach religious purity, what’s left?  Well, a lot.

As far back as possibly two thousand years ago there arose the custom of reading a haftarah (a selection from Nevi’im/Prophets) on Shabbat and other holidays. The passage chosen for the Shabbat of Chanukah is from the Book of Zechariah and includes the famous dictum: “Not by might, not by power, but through my spirit,” thus says the Holy One. (Zechariah 4:1) To appreciate this verse, we need some historical context.
Twenty-six centuries ago, (586 BCE), Jerusalem was sacked and the First Temple destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, who took the intelligentsia into exile. (As we read in Psalms: By the water of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.) Then 47 years later (539 BCE), the Babylonian Empire was vanquished by the Persian Empire, and King Cyrus funded a project for Judean exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.  Not much progress was made until 17 years later (522 BCE) when King Darius of Persia revived the project with fresh funds. (We read about this in the Books of Chronicles 2/Divrei Ha-yamim and Ezra.) Then 2 years later, (520 BCE), Zechariah began his prophetic career. So, the destruction of the Temple and the calamitous loss of Judean life were nearly seven decades back, and Zechariah was living in a time of renewal and relative calm for the tiny kingdom of Judea.
I’m excited to share insights from my colleague Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan who has just published an excellent article on the Book of Zechariah in a volume she co-edited titled Visions of the End Times: Revelations of Hope and Challenge.  Rabbi Duhan-Kaplan points out that after a conservative, nationalist effort at rebuilding decades earlier, “Zechariah supports the revival but advocates for a more liberal approach. For example, for him, rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls is not a priority but creating a welcoming society is.” (p 11) The brief Book of Zechariah describes the prophet’s para-normal experiences: oracular speech, strange and wondrous dreams, visits to heavenly realms, and conversation with an angelic guide:

“In his visions, Zechariah sees the spiritual forces that direct our world. But he does not see them directly.  He sees them only symbolically.  So, he has to keep asking his angelic guide to interpret the symbols. But the interpretations are sometimes as cryptic as the symbols.  For example, after Zechariah sees the [golden] menorah [that receives oil directly from two olive trees] (4:2-3), his guide explains its meaning. ‘Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). But what does God’s ‘spirit’ mean here?  What is it that will be more effective than might and power?  Is it, as classical commentators have suggested, God’s personal direction of regional affairs? The spiritual talents of Persian or Judean leaders? The community’s attention to words of the Torah?  Based on contemporary liturgical use of Zechariah’s menorah vision, I will suggest another possibility: communal commitment to justice is more effective than might or power.” (p 13)
Rabbi Duhan-Kaplan explains that we read of the menorah vision during Chanukah, the holiday that was 
“invented in 164 BCE to celebrate the victory of Judean rebels over the invading Syrian-Greek Seleucid army. The Maccabees, a priestly family who led the revolt, established the Hasmonean [Hashmonayim] dynasty.  But, by the year 200 CE [364 years later], the Hasmoneans had partnered with Rome.  And Rome had over-run Judea. Jews were dispersed around the Mediterranean region. They had very little political power  Certainly not enough to restore a temple in their former capital city.  But they did have enough intellectual and spiritual power to re-envision their tradition.  So, rabbinic teachers of that era reinterpreted Hanukah to suit the politics of their own time. They told the following allegorical story about the Maccabees. After winning their war, the Maccabees inspected the temple. But they found only one day’s worth of pure, high priest-approved oil. Still, oil from that little jar fueled eight full days of menorah light. [They were having a belated Sukkot celebration.] What is the moral of the story? Our generation does not have Maccabean might or Hasmonean political power.  We no longer have high-priest approved oil. But, we have access to something better and brighter. God’s spirit flows to us directly from the created world.
Zechariah himself prophesies almost nine hundred years before the Talmudic rabbis. But their spiritual interpretation of his vision is helpful.  Zechariah writes in a time of restoration  So, he is not worried about a Jewish community without religious or political power. He wants Jews to live well with political power. As he puts it: in our time, God is arranging regional dynamics in our favor. Finally, the horrific war [Babylonians versus Persians] is over. Persia’s version of peace encourages local self-government and regional cooperation. So, we have a chance now to help create a non-militarized world. But to succeed, our leaders must follow a strict ethical code. We must insist they show integrity, generosity, and concern for the oppressed. Our guide will be the mantra: ‘Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit.” (pp13-14) [Boldface mine RNS]
Yaysher koach to Rabbi Laura for an intellectually and spiritually fulfilling reading of this important text!  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/visions-of-the-end-times-laura-duhan-kaplan/1142706654
So, as a counterbalance to the Books of Maccabees in which God plays no role, the rabbis give us a small, sweet miracle and they also reach back nearly a thousand years to the prophet Zechariah for a message of peace. 

Now let’s fast-forward to eighteenth century Ashkenaz in Eastern Europe where great Hasidic masters sought to inspire their followers with a profound, transformative love of God, Torah and one another. Thousands of years before, the rabbis of the Talmud asked, “What happened to the cosmic light God brought forth on the first day of creation, before the sun, moon and stars?” They answered that it was concealed, hidden away as the Or Ganuz (hidden light) to be enjoyed by the tzadikim, the righteous, fully evolved beings, in the world to come. (Chagigah 12a)

Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-1787), a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, added this insight: “The place where this light is hidden for the tzadikim is in the Torah itself.”  (Many of us who have gazed into the Torah have been thrilled with glimpses of this light!)  In the next generation, the Dinover Rebbe, Tzvi Elimelech Spira (1783-1841) taught that we can see the Or Ganuz in the lights of the menorah as well:

“The miracle of the light of the Menorah during this month is derived from the hidden light that was concealed within the Torah…For this reason, they instituted [a total of] thirty-six candles, to parallel the thirty-six times that ‘light,’ ‘candle’ and ‘luminaries’ are mentioned in the Torah, which hints to the hidden light that shined for Adam HaRishon, the first human being, for thirty-six hours but was then hidden away and concealed within the Torah.” (B’nei Yissachar, Kislev v’Tevet 1:6:1)
How splendid!  Tradition teaches that we may make use of Shabbat lights but not Chanukah lights; they are only for gazing at, only for spiritual enlightenment! 
Just as the rabbinic teachers two thousand years ago “reinterpreted Hanukah to suit the politics of their own time,” my colleagues and I are unapologetically reinterpreting the festival to focus on the blessings of winter darkness as an integral part of the natural cycle of the seasons and the ongoing effort to build a peaceful world.  Back in 1998 my beloved Jewish Wedding Band recorded several of my original songs celebrating family joy and the blessings of wintry darkness. Recently I went looking for a used copy online and found to my amazement that the album is still being manufactured and is on Amazon’s Jewish & Yiddish Bestsellers list! A Child's Chanukah – enjoy!
A few years ago, I composed a song for Zechariah’s teaching, “Not By Might, Not by Power,” and another for viewing the Or Ganuz: “Hidden Light, reveal to me / holiness in everything I see / everything I see!  Or Ganuz higaleh li! Ereh kedusha b’chol s’vivati!”  What a joy to sing those songs together!
Let’s return to our meditation on the dreidel and the menorah, the spinning cycle and the linear sequence. On a sunny December afternoon, I sit on the river bar behind my house. I’ve been walking to that spot for over thirty years. The sun hangs low in the sky and beams of light seem nearly horizontal, making the rocks and sand glisten. I watch the water flowing downstream. I know that except for small eddies in the river, I’ll never see the water flow upstream. The river is a unidirectional, linear endeavor, drawing a squiggly line from the coast mountains to the Pacific Ocean. But I also know that the river exists only because of the cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Without millions of years of that cycling, no river. As I watch the frothing and churning of the winter-muddy water, I feel the push of the past and the pull of the future as I move on into my eighth decade of life, counting the years, trying to treasure each day. But I also breathe deeply into the great cycle that gives me river, ocean, clouds and rain, gorgeous gifts that are given over and over.
Chanukah means “dedication.” Every year as we spin our dreidels and light our menorahs, we have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to one another, to our Source, and to the task of bringing about a fair, sustainable, peaceful world.
Chag Chanukah Sameach ~ A joyful Chanukah to all!
A helpful timeline:
 586 BCE        First Temple and Jerusalem destroyed by Babylonians
 539 BCE        Persia defeated the Babylonians; King Cyrus funds Temple restoration
 522 BCE        King Darius of Persia renews funding and work begins on the Second Temple
 520 BCE        Zechariah prophesies – “Not by might, not by power, but through My spirit…”
167 BCE         Maccabean rebels rededicate the Temple, but war continues 20 more years
   90 CE           Rabbis redact the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) omitting Books of Maccabees
 200 CE           Rabbis redact Mishna including story of Chanukah oil lasting 8 days
1730 CE          Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl born
1772 CE          Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav born
1783 CE          Dinover Rebbe, Tzvi Elimelech Spira born
2018 CE          Rabbi Naomi’s granddaughter Rivka born
2022 CE          You read this article!  Yaysher koach! (May your strength increase!)