Do you ever wish that instead of discovering a small container of oil the Maccabees had discovered chocolate instead? Imagine the rabbinic legend describing how sugary chocolate fueled their ability to clean up the Temple in Jerusalem? Imagine celebrating Hanukkah with chocolate fondue parties, and boxes of See’s candy. It sure beats cooking with oil, doesn’t it?
This thought of the “miracle of chocolate” came to mind as I scrubbed the pans used for our annual first night of Hanukkah fry fest-latkes, chicken wings, onion rings and sufganiyot to name a few. Chocolate would’ve been easier and the lingering aroma exponentially better. The problem, of course, is that chocolate was not a sacred ritual ingredient that helped sustain the Temple; but oil was. Oil was used to light the seven branched menorah, it was used in sacrifices, and to anoint the Kohanim—the priests. When the Maccabees found pure, uncontaminated oil was, in fact, a bit of a miracle, whether or not it was one day’s worth or eight.
The lovely Talmudic legend about the Maccabees finding one day’s work of oil that in fact lasted for eight days is a central part of our narrative. However, the historical version of Hanukkah, as described in the Apocrypha, is more complicated. The Maccabees were a zealous group of traditional Jews who fought against the Greeks. They rejected the assimilation of their time. They fought against the Greeks who tried to curtail their religious practices; they fought against fellow Jews who chose to adopt certain Greek practices, thereby assimilating Greek culture into their lives. Their tactics and motivations may have been questionable at times; however, their zealous determination preserved the traditions of the Jewish people and may have even prevented Judaism from disappearing.
On a basic level, the Maccabees fought to preserve Judaism for the future and restore the Temple to the center of Jewish life. Many of us work hard to keep the temple, our synagogues at the center. We saw this attention on the synagogue when four of us from TBE gathered with 5,500 others at the URJ Biennial last week. We know that we have challenges; however, we have many wonderful opportunities as well as great aspirations. In contemporary synagogue life, there is always something to sustain, build, and kindle.
When our synagogues focus our attention our core values, remain mission driven, and ensure that decisions are guided by our highest ideals and the vision of the congregation, then we are better able to keep the synagogue at the center. We celebrate continually the miracle that is a contemporary, innovative and dynamic synagogue based Jewish community.
Tonight we gather for Shabbat and also to kindle the fourth candle for Hanukkah. Tomorrow we gather for our annual Sisterhood Hanukkah Latke Party. We celebrate community, our traditions, our present and our future at this time and at all times.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Urim Sameah, a joyous Festival of Lights.
Rabbi Chuck Briskin
P.S. Tonight and tomorrow, wear your “Ugly” Hanukkah Sweater to Shabbat Services and the Hanukkah Latke Party. It’s another way of “increasing the light” as well as adding some kitch.