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 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:
Rabbi Duhan-Kaplan explains that we read of the menorah vision during Chanukah, the holiday that was
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:
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!)