Ever since I became a dad I've had mixed feelings about Hanukkah. The holiday itself is inarguably beautiful. We kindle a flame to commemorate a miracle, we gaze at its light, and we are forbidden to use that light for any other purpose. We thus celebrate God's light itself -- the first thing God created in our world and, as Einstein taught us, the raw material from which everything else is fashioned. In kindling the Hanukkah light, we commune with the Divine.
The problem is that American Hanukkah has become anything but divine. Conscious of the great fun our friends are having with Christmas, American Jews fill the gap with eight nights of presents, glittering decorations, and in some homes, Christmas trees beside the hanukkiyah as a vehicle for even more presents.
In our house, we'd like to cut out the presents entirely, but we don't want our kids to associate being Jewish with getting ripped off, so we compromise with books. Still, wrapped boxes flow in from well-meaning loved ones, and the increasing commerciality of the season makes it harder every year to maintain the true spirit of Hanukkah. I suspect that many Christian Americans feel the same way about Christmas.
This year, we Jews have a unique opportunity to restore a proper sense of gratitude to our Festival of Lights. Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, a "coincidence" that won't recur in our lifetimes. I believe God speaks to us in the language of events, and coincidences are exclamations. If that's true, then Thanksgivukkah, which won't return for another 79,811 years, must be an important message.
I looked into the origin texts of the two holidays, and discovered that Thanksgivukkah can save from us from not one but two colossal blunders.
Worse than commerciality, our American Hanukkah has become a testament to assimilation, and that's a blunder because the holiday is specifically about not assimilating. Unlike most of our enemies throughout history, the Syrian Greeks who ruled the Middle East in 165 B.C.E. did not desire to kill or enslave the Jewish people. Jews were free to live among them so long as we gave up being Jewish. They banned circumcision, Torah study, and prayer services under pain of death, and then desecrated our Holy Temple by slaughtering a pig upon the altar in honor of their gods.
Tragically, many Jews gave in to the pressure and chose to lead a Hellenized life of scintillating symposia and idolatrous orgies. A few held fast to our then thousand-year-old religion and its precious link to our Creator. War ensued, and against all odds, a small band of warriors led by Yehudah Maccabee freed the Holy Temple from the Greeks. Though the war would rage on for many more years, the Macabees rededicated the Temple immediately, and a small cruse of oil that should have lit the menorah for only one day burned for eight.
One might have thought that the Sages would institute a holiday like Purim to celebrate the miraculous military victory -- a holiday which incidentally includes gift-giving. Instead, the Talmud notes:
A miracle was performed with the oil when they kindled the lights of the menorah. In the following year, the Sages established these eight days of Hanukkah as permanent holidays with the recital of Hallel and Thanksgiving. (Shabbos 21b, B. Talmud)
Imagine that. From the very beginning, Hanukkah has been linked to Thanksgiving, in this case, the thanksgiving blessings we add to the Grace After Meals, thus forever linking Thanksgiving with a festive meal.
It is often said that the Talmud addresses every aspect of our lives, but who would have thought it would presage Thanksgivukkah -- a once-in-a-lifetime "coincidence" 2,000 years in the future! As always, there are no coincidences. Now let's take a look at our modern Thanksgiving.
The holiday dates back to the first meal shared by Pilgrims and Native-Americans. Did they assimilate in order to eat together? Of course not. They brought their traditions with them, maintained their identities, and broke bread together in a meal that acknowledged the blessings they collectively received from their Creator. Sadly, such scenes have been too rare in American history.
The calendar oddity of Thanksgivukkah is not actually based on that first meal near Plymouth Rock, but rather on the federal holiday created by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. So it is especially appropriate on this, the 150th official Thanksgiving, to take a close look at President Lincoln's authorizing proclamation, also made in the midst of a grueling war:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God ... who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a non-sectarian but clearly religious holiday: a time to thank the Creator for miraculous blessings, which include the opportunity to break bread with our loved ones, just as we do in the Grace After Meals.
If we hold on to this Thanksgivukkah teaching, we can forever avoid the blunder of reducing Hanukkah to a commercialized imitation of Christmas.
The second blunder to be avoided is perhaps even more important, and it is a blunder I made even as I wrote this post.
Lincoln issued his proclamation to the "whole American People," whom he asked to thank God with one heart and one voice. He thus spoke not only to the citizens of the North, but also to the ten million rebels of the South. Lincoln refused to judge them, and considered them his brothers and sisters, even though they waged war against him.
How much more then must we Jews refuse to judge our brothers and sisters, especially when we comprise such a small tribe in America, let alone the world. Rabbi Shalom Arush says that the ugliest form of arrogance is when one Jew feels he's better than another. The fact is, it's good that Jews celebrate Hanukkah no matter how or why they do it. In fact, the Talmud teaches:
The commandment of Hanukkah is one light for each person and his entire household. And those who are meticulous about pursuing mitzvos (commandments) have one light for each person in the household. And those who are most fervently meticulous about pursuing mitzvos... kindle one light on the first night and thenceforward increase the number of lights each night. (Shabbos 21b, B. Talmud)
Hanukkah is thus the one holiday on which all Jews are Orthodox! We come together as one people to increase the amount of God's light in the world, and that is precisely our mission. If filling a Christmas void spurs more of us to do that work, fantastic! God loves light, and the more of it the better. Above all, we need unity with one another if we are to fulfill our destiny as a "light unto the nations."
My friends, I wish you a festive, warm, loving, blazingly bright, and happy Thanksgivukkah!
Salvador Litvak wrote & directed the Passover comedy and cult hit, When Do We Eat? His newest film, Saving Lincoln, explores Abraham Lincoln's fiery trial as Commander-in-Chief through the eyes of his closest friend, Ward Hill Lamon. Litvak shares a daily bit ancient wisdom from the Talmud with a rapidly growing community on Facebook.com/AccidentalTalmudist .