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It seems that each generation has its day, like today, that lives in infamy. As we remember the people who died at Pearl Harbor 61 years ago, it reverberates onto September 11. And onto Kristallnacht (Nov. 9-10, 1938). And the firing on Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861). And Tisha B’Av, the oldest day of infamy I can remember.
We all have our personal days as well – we are fast approaching January 2, my mother’s yahrzeit, and tonight we are observing many yahrzeits among members of our congregation. These days that might not be infamous, but are days we remember with sadness and pain.
In Lech Dodi we sing, Shamor v’zachor – guard and remember – zachor, one of the primary tasks of being a Jew – to remember the past as a lesson in how to live our lives in the present and grow in the future.
Jewish holidays remind us of events, or miracles, or spiritual tasks – or all three, that hopefully lead us to become better people and to reach for Olam Haba, the world to come, when peace reigns, and the lion lies with the lamb.
And Chanukah, starting tomorrow night, holds an interesting place in this task to remember. The Book of the Maccabees did not rise to canonical status, so what we have comes from Catholic scriptures. The Talmud barely mentions it. And in every age, it seems, its lessons have been different.
- Rabbis talked about purification and the miracle of the oil. After the temple was destroyed, they were torn between the rebellious ones of the Bar Kochba revolt and the ones who wanted to channel energy into creating a new Jewish world that could survive the galut, the Diaspora. They relied on a divine miracle.
- Medieval Jews talked about divine miracle to give them hope to get through the horrible times and their sense of helplessness.
- For the young country of Israel, coming out of the dark days of the Holocaust, Chanukah was a call to arms to fight for our survival.
- For us, it is about all of that and more: religious freedom, and the ability to survive when we are the Other, it is about finding a way to live through December. And for me, it is in no small part about remembering that the Maccabees led us through some important evolution: where we could say that halakha are to live by, not to die by. (And therefore, we can fight on Shabbat.) And that we can’t wait for the divine miracle, but must be partners to make things happen.
One holiday, one event, so many layers of meaning in each age.
Our reading the torah year in and year out is another way, the primal way, we shamor v’zachor, guard and remember. Each year when we come back to the same texts, we have changed from the year before and therefore, there might be new lessons to gain or another way of looking at it. This year, Breisheit, Genesis, has seemed to me the story of endless sibling rivalry. I’ve spoken about it regularly, as the youngest sister of three. (There are movies and plays and novels about three sisters all over the world, from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, to Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters to Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.) But the Torah mostly tells us stories of brothers, and their sibling rivalry and the bad, terrible parenting that helped to provoke it.
This week’s parasha, Vayeshev (and he dwelled), begins the story of Joseph and his brothers and his technicolor coat. Sometimes, you just have to scratch your head and wonder what Jacob was thinking when he gifted that wondrous coat to his already arrogant son. The hatred among the brothers all directed at him as clearly the identified problem, was never addressed by the father, and all the mothers were either dead (as Rachel was) or silent.
It is easy to imagine all the ways the sons received poor parenting, all the jealousies among the mothers; all the family stories about Uncle Esau, and Grandpa Laban; and the favoritism, exemplified in the end by that ketonet pasim, coat of many colors. Joseph, of course, didn’t help himself, by relaying his dreams, which would indeed come to pass.
But we all have personality traits that need forgiving from our family, don’t we? Those moments when we shake our heads and have to remember, that’s who she or he is? And I still love him or her?
But that underlying love has to be there. That trust. That willingness to overlook. That understanding.
And that seems to be missing in so many interactions in the world today. Down in LA, the Jewish Journal has been recording a dispute between rabbis who at least used to be personal friends about their opinions about whether we can or should care about the Gazan women and children and old people who were killed by Israeli bombs sent to stop the rocket threatening Israeli women and children and older people. http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/rabbi_sharon_brous_vs._rabbi_daniel_gordis_betrayal_or_compassion
Rabbis and lay leaders chimed in between LA and Jerusalem. The words of the Mishnah – Eilu v’eilu – these and these are the words of the living God – resonated in my head as I read the various responses on either side, from people I know and respect or people I know of and respect. Because I trust them, I am willing to overlook what I don’t agree with and try to understand our differences.
But I come back to the sibling rivalries throughout this book of the Torah that in some historical way are supposed to reflect how rivalries sprang up between nations – really – Esau was Edom; etc. When the parenting is problematic that only adds to that built in desire to have what our brother has, to be what our brother is. The ability to overcome our natural rivalries… that ability is not natural. It takes work, and focus and attention and willingness to look at our own place, our own actions, our own behaviors…
That’s the lesson I draw from Genesis and from Vayeshev this year. And I realized that as we remember Pearl Harbor Day, Chanukah is actually more like Armistice Day, the 11th day of the 11th month, or VE day, the day we set aside our weapons, the day we got to come home from war, and see the humanity in each human being. The face of the other as our sister or brother, or our son or daughter.
Chanukah celebrates the rededication of the Temple, the rededication to our connection to the Divine, the rededication to the best that is within each of us. It is a moment to reawaken from the same old, same old, and renew our commitments to what is good, what is true, what we can trust.