Chanukah and Christmas: chocolate coins and presents as we celebrate God in the world

On Tuesday evening Jews all over the world will light chanukiot, the 8 branched candelabra used to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It commemorates the regaining of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, and its rededication after the occupying Seleucids had defiled it while imposing Hellenic culture over its empire, prohibiting any other religions.  The story of the successful revolt by a small group of pious Jews against the large military power of its day has a touch of the miraculous, and sure enough the narratives first found in the apocryphal first two Books of Maccabees have evolved in their retelling, well beyond the original event.

The dark threads of the story are eclipsed by the reframing in the Talmud, which saw Chanukah as less of a human story of oppression and guerrilla warfare, and more as a demonstration of the divine presence in history. So today we celebrate the miracle of oil staying alight for 8 days rather than one, and we eat foods cooked in oil and play games of chance that refer to the miracle, we give presents each night and generally make merry with friends and family, and think very little of the origin of the rebellion against assimilation with the dominant power.

The date of Chanukah – 25th Kislev – moves around the calendar a little but is always around Christmas. And the date is not the only similarity. Both are festivals rooted in pagan winter solstice where lighting the surrounding darkness is central. Both use tree symbolism – the Chanukiah is based on the Temple Menorah, which bible describes using botanical terms – clearly a Tree of Life, while Christmas uses evergreens – holly, ivy, fir trees – to proclaim Everlasting Life. Both stories are set in times of oppression – the Seleucid Empire and the Roman one, and both embed hope that human oppression is vanquished by divine activity. Both signal God’s presence in the world and both stories have a mythic quality of redemption.

And there are other similarities. In modern times the minor post-biblical festival of Chanukah has taken on some less wholesome aspects of Christmas in a bid to compete for Jewish attention.  Both now struggle against commercialisation overpowering their religious message, both become overindulgent. On Chanukah the ‘gelt’ that began as a way to give children small change to use when playing dreidl quickly grew into a present every evening, as more assimilated communities noticed the joy that Christmas presents brought. Chocolate coins took over. What can you do when your child looks at all the glittering baubles with awe and desire? The festival marking rejecting the dominant culture has assimilated it perfectly. As my young son said to his friend when discussing their different Decembers – “What? ONLY ONE night of Christmas? Poor you”

 This article first published in the London Evening Standard on 11th December 2017

Chanukah Readings: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Bible tells us that the first thing that God did having created the heavens and the earth was to utter the words “Let there be light”, and there was light. God saw the light was good, and God divided the light from the darkness, and so began the ordering of a world which would ultimately sustain and nourish humanity, and they in turn would work with God to continue the process of perfecting creation.

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, comes to remind us of the need to continue that work, even though it might sometimes seem that the darkness is all enveloping, and the world has reverted to the state of primordial chaos filled with terrifying uncontrolled forces that is contained in the phrase “tohu va’vohu”

Just as light was the catalyst for the world to develop into a place where we could live and thrive, so too light is the response we must make when faced with a darkening world. Just as bible commands that a light was to be continually burning in the tent of meeting outside the veil of testimony, and the priesthood had to tend to it evening and morning in order to keep it in good order as an eternal statute for the generations, (Exodus 27:20 and Lev 24:2) so too we need our ner tamid, our continually tended and burning light, to remind us not only of God’s compassionate and watchful presence in the world, but also of our obligation to bring God’s presence further into the world. As the book of Proverbs tells us,” Ki ner mitzvah, v’torah or : the commandment is a lamp and torah is light” – to act as God wishes us to act brings light into our world. (6:23)

Chanukah, like all festivals of light, comes in the winter darkness to remind us that the glow of even a small candle can alleviate the deep darkness, and as the Talmud reminds us “the candle of one person can bring light to many people” (Shabbat 122a)

There are many small candles lit in the world, many people doing good work in creative and imaginative ways, tending to the ner tamid, keeping the light of hope alive. Our High Holy Day confession includes the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair” and I must confess that each time I read the news of what is happening in the world, the way so many people are terrorised and terrified, violently murdered or imprisoned or forced to live hand to mouth, treated without compassion or empathy, uprooted and fleeing for their lives or stuck in a societal stratum below any human dignity, I give in, for a while, to despair. And when I see how governments oppress and harass their own people whom they are supposed to protect and support, close their eyes to the pain of their public and to the social justice values of civil society I succumb to frustration and fury that “they” are misusing their power so freely, unchallenged and unrestrained. And I come close to despair.

But then I remember those many people and organisations, those many small candles lit and tended to, which challenge the dejection and despondency and allow me to hope, to connect, to believe that the prophetic values of the Hebrew bible are not only alive and well, but are fighting back hard to be heard and to be seen, to bring light back into the world

So here are eight organisations of civil society in Israel who bring me hope. Eight organisations in whose light we see God’s light, who speak out for justice because, like Rav Kook, they do not have the power to keep silent. One for each of the nights of Chanukah: as you light the small flame of each candle, remember the words of Isaiah “I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do for them, and not forsake them.” (42:16)


First Night of Chanukah:   Tag Meir – The Tag of Light

Founded in Jerusalem in 2011 in response to Tag Mechir (price tag), this is the largest grassroots organisation in Israel that works against hate crime and religious racism in Israel. Transcending religious divides, Tag Meir is an umbrella organisation for a coalition of groups who support and campaign for democratic and Jewish value of justice for all the people. It protests violence and responds to victims of violence. Tag Meir’s mission is to connect different groups in Israeli society in the battle to eradicate racism and violence, and to educate for tolerance and empathy, as well as creating public events to raise and amplify the voice of those committed to democratic values. They offer Israelis the chance to voice their opposition to violence, to publicise it to all who need to hear, from Government to the victims themselves. They hold demonstrations and vigils, they pay condolence calls to victims of terror, they repaint over racist graffiti, they offer material support to religious places defaced. They meet with politicians and decision makers to end incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Their motto : Or Bimkom Terror – Light instead of terror.


tag meir

Second night of Chanukah :   The Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre in Akko

The vision and life’s work of Mohammed Fahili, this is the only Jewish- Arab Community Centre in Israel. It began in 1985 as a simple after-school club run by volunteers and located in the communal bomb shelter of a poor neighbourhood, this was part of an effort by the local Jewish and Arab residents to improve their living environment.  In 1991 the Clore Israel Foundation funded the construction of a purpose-built community centre.

The Centre’s aim is to provide high-quality, low-cost activities for Akko’s residents regardless of ethnicity or ability to pay. It functions as an important part of the community, offering enrichment programmes from infants to pensioners, allowing the people of Akko to meet over shared interests and needs, informally connecting people and building strong relationships. Many of the children that they cater for are from large, poor families and are vulnerable to the dangers of street life.  They help combat school drop-out by offering extra-curricular activities and programmes, nurturing Akko’s children to help them achieve a future. They also offer vital programmes for women and a cultural club for pensioners from the Former Soviet Union.

The Centre is an independent, voluntarily funded, not-for-profit, non-political and unaffiliated organisation.  It is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from people who believe in the importance of their work in creating a better future in the region.


Fahili himself is an inspiration a candle in a dark room. With courage, humility and perseverance he has created an oasis of hope, a meeting place, a model for how Israeli society can be.




Third night of Chanukah:  Hiddush For Religious Freedom and Equality

Founded in 2009, Hiddush works through advocacy and public education to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Taking as its platform the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which states “”The State of Israel … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion … it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience” Hiddush is a partnership between Israeli Jews and World Jewry to ensure that this guarantee remains at the centre of the Israeli Government’s policy.



Fourth Night of Chanukah:  YTheater Project Jerusalem

Founded in September 2009 in Jerusalem, this is the Israeli-Palestinian Community Theatre for a Change. YTheater engages Israelis and Palestinians together in a creative process of empowerment and responsibility. Using activist community theatre methods, it builds relationships, nurtures civic virtues, and helps the participants to work together strategically. YTheater runs workshops for Jewish, Arab, and Anglo youth and young adults to empower leadership.


“We are Palestinians and Israelis. Our lives and world-views usually exclude one another. We agree about almost nothing.   We are positioned in opposition. Our souls are on the line. We burn with the passion of the Middle East. We grope for new pathways – to break through impasses, to un-lock the grid of violence, and to mend what is broken. Creating theatre is our shared language; the stage is our meeting point. We are Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze who collaborate. We struggle, we do not whitewash. We face difference and difficulty with caring and respect. Awe for life feeds our commitment to persevere, to create, to pry open our own hearts and the hearts of our audiences and participants. YTheater Project Jerusalem explores, interprets and innovates. We delve deeply into our behaviour, traditions, and societies.  We critique, provoke, and even, humbly, propose.In a region raw with conflict and pain, we rehearse for better life together. We are contributing to the infrastructure for better Palestinian and Israeli civil society.  YTheater builds relationships that heighten confidence and active will toward peace.”       Website



Fifth night of Chanukah:        The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, founded in 1998, is Israel’s leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. For over 15 years Hotline staff and volunteers have been visiting Israel’s immigration detention centres to monitor conditions, meet with detainees and provide paralegal intervention and legal representation. We represent some of the most vulnerable people in Israel and advocate for government policies consistent with a just, equal and democratic Israel.

By combining client advocacy with impact litigation, policy initiatives and public outreach, we aim to achieve broad-based, systematic improvements in policies and practices ensuring that the human rights of migrants in Israel are respected.

Their main activities are Crisis Intervention, Legal Action and Public Policy and Education.       Website

Sixth Night of Chanukah: The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality

In 1997, a group of concerned Arab and Jewish residents of the Negev (the southern desert region of Israel) established the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality to provide a framework for Jewish-Arab collaborative efforts in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence. The Forum, also known as “Dukium” in Hebrew, is unique in being the only Arab-Jewish organization established in the Negev that remains focused solely on the specific problems confronting the Negev.

The Forum’s activities and projects are based on the principle of Arab-Jewish cooperation and among their members are leaders of the Negev Arab community and academics. As a joint Jewish-Arab group we maintain a balance and equal partnership in the bodies of the organization as well as in the decision-making processes.

NCF is engaged in a wide range of grassroots activities. They have worked with community leaders in “unrecognized” Bedouin villages to deliver vital basic services to their communities. In the spirit of coexistence, Bedouin residents and Jewish volunteers work together to provide clean water, nursery schools, access roads and rubbish removal systems to over a dozen villages.

In collaboration with other NGOs, the NCF has filed legal petitions against discriminatory practices affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev. For example, as a result of a joint petition submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005, the government agreed to properly dispose of sewage flowing through Um Batin. Other petitions have led to the establishment of health clinics in ten unrecognized villages and to the prohibition of toxic crop spraying.   Website

Seventh Night of Chanukah:    Breaking the Silence

“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavour to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

Founded in March 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and in the media, as it is unique in giving voice to the experience of soldiers. To date, the organization has collected testimonies from over a 1,000 soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories.”


Eighth Night of Chanukah:        Shomrei Mishpat: Rabbis for Human Rights

“Founded in 1988, Rabbis for Human Rights is the only rabbinic voice in Israel that is explicitly dedicated to human rights. Representing over 100 Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students from different streams of Judaism, we derive our authority from our Jewish tradition and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations, and to pressure the State institutions to redress these injustices. In a time in which a nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition is heard frequently and loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights give expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.

RHR works primarily in the following 4 fields:

Socioeconomic Justice Work in Israel:

Rights of the Poor: RHR focuses on raising awareness and lobbying the Knesset for better economic rights for impoverished Israelis at the national level. At the local level, our Rights Centre in Hadera helps hundreds of Jews and Arab citizens obtain socioeconomic rights that have been denied to them, and run empowerment and advocacy groups of local Arab and Jewish citizens  from the Hadera area who focus and advocate for policy changes of their choosing.

Rights to Public Housing: RHR provides legal representation for public housing tenants in Beit She’an, Beersheva, and Hadera whose housing does not meet their needs or who are facing eviction.


Human Rights Work in the Occupied Territories: For example the Olive Tree Campaign: RHR works year round with Palestinian farmers from several dozen villages in the Occupied Territories, to ensure that they can regularly access their agricultural lands, often denied to them because of their proximity to Israeli settlements.. During Tu B’shvat, we purchase and bring hundreds of Israeli and international volunteers together with Palestinians to plant some 2,500 olive trees in areas where settlers have cut, uprooted and/or burned trees in acts of vandalism and arson.

Challenging Land Confiscation in the Occupied Territories: RHR works to legally prevent or reverse the takeover of Palestinian lands in Area C, and ensure that Palestinian farmers can safely access those lands. We continually monitor the implementation of previous rulings on land access issues.

Promoting Human Rights Education in Israel: RHR works in 12 pre-military academies, exposing every year some 600 young Israelis to our human rights teachings based on our rabbinic interpretation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We believe that teaching human rights to young people who then continue onto their army service better equips them to deal humanely with the realities on the ground.


Human Rights Yeshivas: For more than a decade, RHR has been teaching about human rights and Judaism to Israeli university students. We currently run 2 human rights yeshivas, with a total of 40 participants. Students who participate in the program receive a stipend, and intern in a human rights or social change organization in order to understand more deeply the challenges facing Israeli society.”





Candles are added to the Chanukiah from right to left but are lit from left to right.

(On the Shabbat of Chanukah, light the Chanukah lights first and only then the Shabbat candles)

Light the shamash first, then use it to kindle the rest of the Hanukkah lights. As you do, say or sing:

Baruch atah Adonai ,Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah   Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy through doing the mitzvot, and commands us to light the lights of Chanukah.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she-asah nissim la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem Baz’man hazeh. Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.


And on the first night only, add the blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she’hecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.


As you light the other lights (or after you have finished lighting) recite the following:

Hanerot halalu anu madlikin / Al ha’te’shu’ot v’al ha-nissim v’al ha’nifla’ot, Sheh’aseeta la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem biz’man hazeh/ Al y’dei kohaneh’cha ha’kedoshim; V’chol sh’monat Y’mei Chanukah Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, V’ein lanu reshut le’hishtameish ba’hen/ Ela lirotan bilvad, k’dei lehodot ul’haleil le’shimcha hagadol Al nisse’cha Ve’al niflotecha Ve’al yeshu’ote’cha.

We kindle these lights to commemorate the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our ancestors, in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your saving acts.


Eight Other Readings about Light and Mitzvot


“We live in a dark time. In a world ravaged by war, prejudice, disease, and now, an economic crisis that will put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of suffering. We need to bring more light. And to bring the light, we need to become the Maccabees- a people of faith who believed that liberty is worth fighting for, that human dignity is worth fighting for, and that justice is worth fighting for.” (Rabbi Sid Schwarz)



“If you offer your compassion to the hungry and you feed the famished creatures, then your light will shine in the darkness and your gloom will be like noonday” Isaiah 58:10


“When you think about someone or something that inspires you, the expression with the word נֵר would be Ner Le-Raglav- נֵר לְרַגְּלָיו. Literally, the expression means “a candle by his leg” but the contextual English translation for this expression would be “guideline” or “guiding principle.” I would add to this the meaning of “someone that you can follow”,  as it appears in Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” “נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר לִנְתִיבָתִי.”


“According to the Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds interpretation of the Bible, the passage in Genesis follows a major destruction of the world previous to our own. The light mentioned in Genesis 1:3 was a supernatural light that had the power to repair elements of the previously destroyed world. Day one of creation records the day when this supernatural light of repair was introduced into our current world. Day two records the start of the repair of the atmosphere and water. Day three describes the completion of the repair of the atmosphere and water and the repair of plant life. Day four describes the repair of the Earth’s relationship to the Sun, Moon, and stars. Day five describes the repair of marine life and winged creatures. Day six describes the repair of land animals and man.


“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)


But the path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shines more and more unto the perfect day. (Proverbs 4.18)


“The Holy One said to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us, you and I go and give light to Zion. Arise, give light, for your light has come (Isaiah 60:1)” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 21:1)


Mikketz: raising up the light and keeping hope alive

Rabbi Hugo Gryn famously told a story of his father in the winter of 1944, while they were together in a concentration camp called Lieberose. Having announced that it was the eve of Chanukah, he took a homemade clay bowl and lit a wick immersed in is precious, now melted ration of margarine. Before he could recite the blessing, Hugo looked at his father and protested “we need the food – we can’t afford to waste it on a candle” his father looked at Hugo then His father looked at Hugo-and then at the lamp—and responded, “You and I have seen that it is impossible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water; but you can’t live at all without hope.”

Rabbi Moshe Prager told the story of a young boy in Auschwitz whose Barmitzvah fell on the first day of Chanukah. He too painstakingly collected scraps of oil to craft a makeshift candle and invited a small group to celebrate with him late at night in his ‘bunk’. In the blackness of the night in Auschwitz, a small band of hungry and frightened Jews huddled together to watch the Barmitzvah light the candle and intone the blessings when a Nazi guard entered the hut and shouted at the lad at the centre of the activity to put out the candle. The Barmitzvah looked at the Nazi and said “we Jews do not extinguish light, we make light”

What both the stories have in common is the importance of retaining identity, and that in holding on to who we essentially are, we keep alive not only ourselves and our hope, but also God’s place in our world.

At the very beginning of creation God commands y’hee or – let there be light. Long before the sun and moon have been created, even before night and day have been differentiated, even before the division into light and darkness, the command booms out in the Universe – y’hee or. God, who commands us to walk in God’s way and emulate God’s actions as best we can, enters the tohu va’vohu, the confusion and blackness of the deep and brings light. It is a command for us to do the same.

In the sidra Mikketz, which is always read on Shabbat Chanukah, Joseph, the arrogant young boy who had been sold into slavery by his brothers and who had, by his own efforts, survived Egyptian imprisonment and become a noted interpreter of dreams, seems to shed his own Hebrew identity and becomes an officer of Pharaoh’s court. His name is changed to an Egyptian one – Zaphenat Parnea, he marries an Egyptian woman Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest and wears the clothing of Egyptian nobility.

Nachum Sarna explains the etymology of the new name – Zaphenat Parnea in this way:

“Traditional exegesis connects the name with Joseph’s penchant for interpreting dreams, seeing in the first element a derivation from the Hebrew stem ts-f-n to hide, and rendering the second contextually as “to elucidate”. The name would thus mean “The revealer of hidden things”. However an Egyptian origin is evident and a widely held view regards it as the transcription “God speaks; he lives” … In choosing this name, Pharaoh finds a title for Joseph as the one in whom God speaks, and the people live

So even Joseph, the assimilated one, the one who leaves home and family and chooses never to go back; even Joseph, who marries out and whose children are adopted back into the family as half-tribes; Joseph who gives his sons Hebrew names even while describing them as the ones who will help him forget his own past; with all of this, even Joseph retains his essential identity, keeping alive hope, keeping alive God’s place in the world, bringing light into the world through his management of resources and his conduit to God’s speaking.

We always read Mikketz in Chanukah. We always read of the name change on a day we will be lighting the candles of witnessing to God’s continuing care for us. We always face the tensions embedded in Jewish identity, in Jewish historical experience at this time. We read about Pharaoh’s description of the most assimilated of our ancestors as “a man in whom there is the spirit of God”. The story reminds us – as do the two Chanukah stories of the holocaust with which I began – that no matter how dark, how distressing our world, God is not really hidden far away. Maybe hidden, but not far away, and we can bring forth light for ourselves and so reveal the divine that is all around us.

Chanukah: A time to reconnect to our values

photoSome years ago I was telephoned by a local radio station, wanting to interview me about Christmas coming so early this year. Somewhat confused I asked “Coming early? But isn’t it a fixed date?” This in turn confused the researcher. After a while I became clear about what she meant – that the shops were already full of Xmas gifts and glitter, even though it was early October. She wanted to know what I thought about it. I had to tell her that as a Rabbi I hadn’t given it much thought, and maybe she ought to be speaking to a cleric whose own tradition was being devalued and commercialised by this particular phenomenon, rather than me. She thanked me kindly and rang off. But it set me thinking.
When we Jews say “the festivals are early this year” we mean that they have taken us by surprise, and we aren’t ready and prepared for them. But Christmas ‘coming early’ means almost the opposite – people OVER preparing for it – at least in one aspect of its celebration. And by this particular type of preparation, the meaning and the message behind the festival becomes obfuscated and ignored.
It is always necessary to prepare for festivals if they are to mean anything more than the superficial enjoyment we can create around them. But the preparation has to be appropriate and considered. “Christmas coming early” is another way of saying that the meaning of the festival has been overtaken and overlaid by the trappings. The preparation has somehow gone askew. The traditions which deliberately build up to the important date (Advent colours, candles and liturgy) are disempowered by the gilt and glitz in the shops.
Rosh Hashanah or Pesach ‘coming early’ really means that we have run out of time to prepare for them, and that happen because we’ve become disengaged from our Jewish calendar. “Jewish time” nudges us with the regular cycle of Shabbat observance, our liturgy includes prayers before the new moon which reminds us monthly just how the year is passing; We read special haftarot before some of the festivals, and others that link us to calendar and time – from before Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hashanah and so on.
There are so many reminders that our tradition has worked into our routines, but only if we keep those routines in our lives. We under-prepare for our festivals each time we could make Shabbat Kiddush but don’t, we under-prepare for our festivals each time we book holidays without consulting the Jewish calendar, we under-prepare for our festivals by not living within Jewish time, and by forgetting to mark each new day and new week with reference to our ancient markers.
One of the things the religious world could learn from the commercial world is that forward planning and continual working towards the goal is the only way that the festival is made to be successful. I’m pretty sure that the Easter Egg planning is finalised by now in most confectionary factories and probably some are already made!
As the days draw in and the trees lose their leaves we may be thinking about latkes and doughnuts, the comfort food of Chanukah, and the bright lights of the menorah in our windows – but to really prepare for the festival we should be thinking of the meaning of having a festival dedicated to the rights of people to practise their religious beliefs and then move on into putting the values of those religious beliefs into action.

And as we celebrate Chanukah this year, our thoughts should also be travelling a little further down the line, thinking about Pesach, about Shavuot, about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; we should be thinking about how we plan to put our values into action at every festival, and during every ordinary day of the week. Who will you invite to your Seder this year? How will you be able to sit around the table and talk of freedom if you haven’t been considering it throughout the year, – and not only considering it but actively working to maintain important freedoms in our world.
Reconnecting with our calendar is the first step we take in order to reconnect with the meaning of our festivals, to not be taken by surprise each time a date comes round. Forward planning to make our festivals meaningful. As new diaries come into the shops and we write our important information into them ready for the new year, let’s put in the religious festivals, and some time set aside to prepare for them

Tenth of Tevet – the day of remembering those who died in the Shoah

Today is the tenth of Tevet, an historic day of mourning for the Jewish people for it is the date on which in 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar responded to King Zedekiah’s rebellion and besieged the city of Jerusalem (2Kings 25:1-2), and bible also records that the word of God came to Ezekiel telling him “”O mortal, write for yourself the name of this day, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem”  (Ezekiel 24: 2).  Exile to Babylon became certain from this date, even though the city held out for some time, falling three years later when on 17th Tammuz the city walls were breached and three weeks after that on the 9th Av the Temple was destroyed. By the time of Zechariah (c520 BCE) the custom of fasting on this day was established.

While this fast was originally a response to the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel for seventy years, it was never seen as only the commemoration of an historic response, but also a response to the suffering of the people. Because of this, and because of the Talmudic dictum that “Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, Bad things come to pass on an unlucky day” (Ta’anit 29a), the tenth of Tevet became seen as an appropriate day on which to commemorate all who died in the Shoah, particularly all those whose date of death was unknown. In 1949 the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared that “the day on which the first churban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last churban,” and two years later this became the official date for the yahrzeit of those who have no recorded date of death.

Yet the Government of Israel chose a different date to commemorate the events of the Shoah, “Yom Ha’Zikaron le Shoah ve la’Gevurah” The Day of Remembering the Shoah and Heroism was passed in Israeli law in 1953 and was originally chosen to be observed on the 14th Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – clearly the Gevurah, the Heroism, was to be a major component of the observing of this day, a deliberate and explicit way to counter the “lambs to the slaughter” accusations of the victimhood of the Jewish people.

There were a number of problems with this date – the month of Nisan is traditionally a month of joy, associated with redemption and Pesach, and to hold a day of mourning in it cut across customs and norms. Particularly, the 14th Nisan is just before Seder night and so the date was moved to the 27th Nisan, which means that it is now observed the week before Yom ha’Atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day.

And this is where I become uncomfortable. I have always found the link of a week between Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha’Atzma’ut means that we link the two dates in an improper way. The yearning by the Jewish people for their own land once more is millennia old. The practical developments for this to happen began many years before the Shoah, with the work of the Zionist movement which grew out of growing anti-Semitism in post enlightenment Europe. While the events of the Shoah may or may not have had an effect on the speed the establishment of the State of Israel, it does not rest fundamentally upon it – the ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are deeper, longer, and far more complex than it being a response out of the guilt of Europe to solve the “Jewish Question”.  The linkage between the Shoah and the State of Israel has also led to a corrupted narrative that the Jews of the Diaspora were by definition weak and helpless, negating the rich traditions of learning, art, science and being of the Jews who lived in Europe for so many generations.

To have this date on the tenth of Tevet rather than in Nisan would not only realign our observance to traditional timing, it would mean that we would remember all those who died in the Shoah the week after finishing celebrating Chanukah, a festival that grew out of militaristic triumph and that was reinterpreted by rabbinic tradition with the addition of a miracle to become a religious reminder that even in dark times God is with us. To remember our unknown dead, and all those who died at the hands of a great power bent on destroying us just one week after we celebrate the victory of those who fought a great power bent on destroying the particularity of the Jewish people would give us a better sense of perspective. We would be reminded that no battle is ever won for all time and we need to remain aware of the need to combat evil wherever we find it;, that however clever our military strategies we also need to be aware of the reason for our continued existence – that we are a people of God whose work is to increase holiness in the world, just as we increase the level of holiness through the days of Chanukah.  


“I have dreamed a dream and there is none that can interpret it”

 How does Pharaoh know that his magicians are not giving him satisfactory answers to his dream, but that Joseph’s interpretation is the correct one?   What tells him to discard the professional responses in favour of the account from a young unknown with his  vision and clarity of purpose?  For Pharaoh recognises Joseph’s analysis as true, his connection with God as unparalleled, and his ability to translate the dreams into achievement invigorating.  Taken hastily from his prison, Joseph is elevated to ruler of Pharaoh’s household because he has the ability to translate insight into action.

Parashat Mikketz is always read on the Shabbat in Chanukah, the festival of rededication of the Temple when we remember the Maccabees who fought for the right to worship in their own way. And while it is called a festival of lights, it is more accurately a festival of rights, as we commemorate the struggle of a people to freely express their religious and cultural identity and openly be themselves in a world with different values and hatred of otherness. 

As we read Pharaoh’s words to Joseph – “Halom Halamti” – I have dreamed a dream – we are reminded of that other formulation – Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”  that underpinned the American Civil Rights movement in the last century. The turning of a dream into a vision, by using it as a springboard to change the way the world works is a theme of both the festival and the parasha. In both cases the passionate outsider sees clearly what must be done, in both cases the status quo is forced to change.

Pharaoh must have known all along the meaning of his dream, to have rejected the interpretations of his ministers. Dreams are not especially helpful as insight, but only as a guide to action.  He needed the energy of vision to come along to help him transform the dream to reality. We too hug our dreams close, knowing what we should be advocating and enabling but all too often choosing passivity rather than activism.  So when will we begin to turn the dreams we dream into practical visions for the future?


Chanukah Miracles

Chanukah is one of the most historically documented of all the Jewish holidays – we have early sources for it in the books of the Maccabees, and in the works of Josephus. We have accounts in the Talmud and in other rabbinic literature. Every Jew knows the story – that Antiochus Epiphanes forced all the people under his rule to take up Hellenistic practices, that the worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of unclean animals replaced the traditional worship in the Temple, that Shabbat and circumcision were outlawed. And while some Jews were eager to take on Hellenism, with its pantheon of gods, and its emphasis on the beauty and strength of the human body, others resisted, and died as martyrs.

Then one day the Greeks came to the village of Modi’in and set up an altar there, commanding the Jews to show obedience to Antiochus’ decree.  Mattathias an old priest was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to follow the instructions that he killed him, and then he and his 5 sons retreated to the mountains and began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Before he died Mattathias passed on the leadership to his son Judah, who led the forces against a series of Antiochus’ armies, and defeated them all. When he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple from its defilement, they could only find one small cruse of oil, enough to last just one day, yet when they lit the Temple menorah with it a miracle occurred and the light burned for 8 days.  Since then we celebrate Chanukah in order to remember the Maccabees and their successful fight for religious independence, and we retell the miracle of the oil, we light the chanukiah and we eat foods cooked with oil.

That is the story, everyone knows it, yet strangely enough in none of the many early accounts we have of Chanukah do we find the story quite like this.   

Some accounts focus on the facts of war. Other stories place at their centre the personality of individual members of the Hasmonean family; or the terrible persecution suffered under Antiochus; or the willing assimilation by many which almost wrote the Jews out of history.  Other texts talk about cleansing and rededication of the Temple in order for it to be used for Jewish worship once more. 

Different aspects of the story of the Maccabean rebellion have been highlighted at different times. So the rabbis living in Mishnaic times may have felt obliged to mute the story of a successful revolt by a small number of Jews against a powerful enemy; and those of Talmudic times may well have needed the extra emphasis on the Temple rededication, and the reassurance of the presence of God in the world that the story of the miracle would bring.  The issue of religious martyrdom was important in medieval times when the community was decimated in the crusades – and so on. 

            The festival of Chanukah has continued to develop and we continue to tell the story in our particular way.  Every generation engages with the story, infuses the ritual with contemporary meaning, uses the story and the eight days of candlelighting to express something we feel deeply about. Every generation looks at the story of Chanukah, adding their own light and shadow in order to express that which is important to their time. 

A modern response has been to use the festival as an antidote to external cultural influences, to make it, as it were, the Jewish Christmas, with the giving of presents and the eating of rich (and oily) foods. Sadly Chanukah has become a festival our children know more about than the more core biblical ones of Sukkot and Shavuot.  I have no problem with raising the status of Chanukah to combat the alienation caused by the feeling that the whole world is having a party to which we are not invited (and nor should we be, or we risk devaluing the importance and particularity of Christmas), but it does worry me that Chanukah has become a sort of catch all festivity during the dark winter months, and all meaning is overshadowed by celebration.  For Chanukah does have a message for us, and is not simply a convenient peg to enable us to have our own party, Chanukah is all about – indeed the word has the basic meaning of – dedication and renewal. 

            If we parallel the original story of Chanukah in which people moved away from the core values of Jewish tradition and its place of expression, in favour of the values of a world which did not give a worth to the imperatives of increasing holiness through ethical and righteous behaviour, then this is the time of year we should be rededicating and renewing our own Jewish identity – going, as it were, into the sanctuary of our own souls and taking stock of where we are three months after the last stock take of Yom Kippur. Do we need to refocus, to relight our desire to be better than we are being, to rededicate ourselves to our partnership in the work of God?

            Chanukah, often called “Festival of Lights” is more properly a “Festival of Rights” – celebrating the determined fight of a tiny group of people for the basic human right to religious identity, spiritual autonomy and right to define one’s self.

Mattathias and his sons fought a battle whose principle continues to be fought around the world. And this principle is at the core of the Chanukah story. There continue to be refugees fleeing from their countries – from wars which have nothing to do with them, from persecution over their gender, religion, nationality, sexuality, existence….

            The rabbis asked –  “if there was only enough oil for one day, and it stayed alight for 8 days while new oil was being prepared, it is easy to understand the miracle of the last 7 days, but what was the miracle on the first day?”  

They provide a number of possible answers, but for me the one that resonates is that the miracle of the first day was that people still cared enough and believed enough to light the menorah at all, when they knew that realistically it should go out again within a few hours and they would find themselves in deep darkness again. The miracle of Chanukah isn’t some supernatural extension of the burning properties of oil, but that very ordinary human beings lit the oil in the first place, determined to create light even if only in their own locality, even if only for a short time. It would have been so easy to have not bothered, to have said it would make no difference, to have given up.

Miracles are not really about heavenly interventions or supernatural experiences, but ordinary everyday things which we create and experience every time we choose to dedicate ourselves to the values we say we believe in, when we remind ourselves that we are one human race, when we recognise that what binds us is of more importance than what separates us. Miracles happen when people don’t give in to despair or lethargy, or the belief that they can’t make a difference anyway so they shouldn’t even try.

Chanukah is a festival of dedicating ourselves, of learning about ourselves and what we could be capable of, of reminding ourselves that our actions should match our words. As we light our candles and eat our doughnuts and spin our dreidls, let’s give some thought to how our own lives might provide light – even just a small glow – and make our bit of the world a kinder place.