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In rabbinical school, I learned what you might call the “real” story of Hanukkah. I also learned about the “real” story of Purim – there is more beyond the Disney version which includes a violent ending to the Book of Esther, which I never knew about as a child. I also learned about other gruesome stories in the Torah like the punishment for those who built the Golden Calf (they had to drink an elixir made from the ground-up golden calf and subsequently died) as well as consequences such as being swallowed alive by the earth for other disobedience.
What I mean when I say that I learned the “real” story of Hanukkah is that I became acquainted with the historical and rabbinic ambivalence toward the holiday. For starters, unlike all other Jewish holidays (with the exception of modern day Israeli holidays instituted after the creation of the state of Israel), the story and holiday of Hanukkah is not in the Hebrew Bible. It’s part of another genre of literature called the Apocrypha. Secondly, the holiday was established by the Maccabees to commemorate a military victory in which their small Jewish army defeated the huge Greek army. This war was forged by the Maccabees against both the Jews who had become too assimilated into Greek culture and against the Greeks themselves who had forbidden the Jews certain practices of Judaism.
The Maccabees were quite zealous in their religious fervor and it makes me wonder if they would have found my family, my community and me too assimilated as well. Though many of our holidays are also a celebration of our survival, the Maccabees’ establishment of the holiday in honor of their military victory was a distinctly Greek practice. The Rabbis of the Talmud were troubled by much of this and they even asked, “Mai Hanukkah” which, loosely translated from the Aramaic, means, “What the heck is Hanukkah?”
In the Talmud, the rabbis go on to tell the story of the destruction of the Temple, the re-dedication of the Temple and the lighting of the menorah with one tiny cruse of oil that was supposed to last only one night, but lasted eight nights. For the rabbis, that was the miracle of Hanukkah. The Talmud does not mention the military victory.
Ever since my rabbinical studies of Hanukkah, I’ve also wondered culturally about how Greek Jews feel about the Hanukkah story. (I also wonder how the Greeks feel about getting a bad rap in this story.) As a former Hillel staff member and Hillel rabbi, I also thought about the Greek Jews on campus, meaning the Jewish students who were members of Jewish fraternities and sororities. How did they feel about the Maccabees’ fight against the Jews who were too Hellenized — the Jews who were too Greek?
Jews of all communities and cultures learn to preserve their heritage but are also influenced by the area of the world in which they live. Jews from just about every Sephardic country have their own foods, recipes, and songs that most of us who grow up Ashkenazi don’t know about. I love learning about different kinds of Jewish cultural practices, which to me, are not about assimilation, but about embracing the creativity and the survival of the Jewish people.
Being the eager student ready to share what I had just learned about the “real” story of Hanukkah in rabbinical school, I told it all to my family at Hanukkah. I thought they would find it all as fascinating as I had. But sadly, they were not intrigued or excited by the ambivalence in our tradition to the different versions of the stories. My grandma was actually upset. “So the story of the Maccabees isn’t real? It’s not what Hanukkah is really about?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “it’s only one part of the story. It’s not the whole story but it is one part of it.” So she asked me what I thought the real miracle was. I told her that I thought the real miracle was when everyone in our family was lighting Hanukkah candles – even when we weren’t together, even if we were far apart – that at one time of year – we each lit the candles, and saw our own hope, joy and memories reflected in the light of the candles.
Wherever you are; wherever your loved ones are; from whatever culture or background; I hope that your Hanukkah was a chance for you to come together.
I am a counter and a list maker. I use the calendar on my phone/computer and I have a paper calendar. I create a to-do list each week and sometimes add things I have already accomplished for the simple pleasure of being able to cross it out. I have a countdown app on my phone that provides me with the exact amount of time, down to the second, until an upcoming event. I am fascinated by the fact that time never changes and yet five more minutes until recess or your lunch break feels interminable while five more minutes with someone you love is never enough.
We all mark time in our lives in different ways: Facebook reminds us of birthdays, there are myriad apps to download and calendars in every size and color if you’d rather a physical book. If we take a step back from our ever present and much appreciated technology, we are reminded of the passage of time with every sun rise and set, with the changing of seasons, the warm fresh spring air following a difficult winter, even the beautiful and mysterious patterns of the stars in the vast inky blue on a clear night.
And so we all count, individually and collectively, slowly moving along with time, whether we like it or not.
Naturally, Judaism spends a lot of time contemplating and marking the passage of time as well, especially this time of year. On Passover we celebrate freedom, the bonds of cruel slavery broken as the Israelites follow Moses and Miriam out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land. We know the story, we’ve heard it, perhaps have even seen the animated version (I highly recommend The Prince of Egypt). Passover is both the culmination of this tale of slavery and the beginning of a new era of freedom and peoplehood.
So it only seems natural that Judaism would begin a count, called the “omer,” beginning on the second day of Passover and counting the 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the moment on Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Torah, the story of the Jewish people and the laws, values and ethics by which to live. Each day Jews around the world say a blessing for this count as we move ever closer to the next defining moment in our collective life as a community.
Whether you vigilantly count the omer each day or you have never heard of this before, it is an interesting concept. While we often assume that the biggest moments in our lives deserve that special mark on our calendar, a card and maybe flowers, the counting of the omer suggests that remembering the journey, taking that brief moment for a simple blessing, a moment of perspective, also counts (please, pardon the pun).
These in-between moments aren’t always splashy or exciting; no one is parting a sea or forming a nation every day. Just like the Israelites wandering through the desert, we complain, we bemoan our busy schedules, worry about what’s to come, wonder if we made the right choices. And this lovely April, all of that pent up energy collected during a particularly vicious winter has been released and we are all running around, making up for lost time, attending that that spring dance recital or those little league baseball games, maybe soon a weekend visit to your favorite beach. And just as those dark, dreary, snowy winter weeks moved at a snail’s pace, these lovely spring days seem to be flying by. And how often are we simply going through the motions, waiting for that next big event, cruising on autopilot?
So perhaps this year, amidst the craziness, on those average, nothing-special days, find a single moment and simply notice it, make it count. Give yourself a rest from the worry, from the anticipation or excitement of what’s next. It is the joy we find for ourselves in the most mundane of moments or the peace we create in a single deep breath that allow us to embrace, prepare for and celebrate the most life-changing events that we put on calendars and count down with apps. The tick of time will always be constant, but we can choose how we spend it, even if only for one brief tock. So this year I’m going to count the omer and try my best to make it count as well.