From the Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Normally Hanukkah and Christmas are juxtaposed by the secular and Jewish calendars. Christmas is a central holiday for Christianity and Hanukkah is considered of the minor Jewish holidays, not recorded in the Bible and only minimally mentioned in the Talmud. These two holidays are theological opposites, one celebrating the birth of the central figure of the faith and the other commemorating the fight to preserve Judaism. Why is this year different from every other year?
The answer is found in the intricacy of the Jewish calendar being a hybrid of a lunar calendar adjusted to the solar calendar. The holidays must occur in their proper seasons. Just imagine Passover in December and Rosh HaShanah in July! Can’t happen! The Jewish calendar is designed to keep order. Yet this year we celebrated the extraordinary event of Hanukkah juxtaposed to Thanksgiving. It won’t occur again for many millennia.
Long discourses could be written on the origin of Thanksgiving, debunking some of its myths. We know that the early settlers to this continent, illegal aliens to the Native Americans, would shortly dispossess those who had helped save their lives. We have created self-serving mythology. Yet the need to be thankful and express it is rooted in the Torah with the holy day of Sukkot and the bringing of the First Fruits to the Temple. More important than the sales and football games is the need to acknowledge that we have been blessed to have what we have. Furthermore, if we are really truthful with ourselves, we need to act upon the knowledge that not all people have been blessed like we have been. We need to be a blessing to others. Our sacred liturgy compels us to assist all others in need, the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, in Biblical language, to rise from their poverty and enjoy the same level of blessings that we do. I am glad that our Biblical teachings are the foundation of the thoroughly American holiday. Our Judaism and our American heritage are complementary one to another.
Hanukkah must be understood accurately to have its authentic power. It was not a fight for “religious freedom.” It was war by the Jews against the onslaught of Hellenism, culture and religion, to be Jews faithful to God and Torah. In the beginning it was civil war among the Jews themselves, those who would be faithful and those who abandon it. The struggle began with a small number, a faint light in the Judean mountains and would last for decades. The liberation of Jerusalem and the rededication of its Temple were temporary. Yet because of the Maccabees Judaism would survive, thrive and triumph while the Greek and Roman empires would crumble. Hanukkah is a distinctive holiday for the Jewish people. It is a specific narrative of the Jews would who fight even to the death to preserve the faith. It is a very different holiday than Thanksgiving.
I am proud to observe both holidays, as a Jew and as an American. Their juxtaposition gives me pause to realize how blessed I am, we are, to have such a personal richness. But I do not combine the two. One expresses a general thanks for what we have. The other celebrates our existence and our purpose as Jews. I hope that you enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving. From our far-flung family to yours we wish a happy and meaningful Hanukkah.