This article was published in the December 2020 issue of The Scroll.
There are certain things we Jews do well. We know how to mourn. We know how to celebrate. That’s because our perspectives on both come from a source of great wisdom: the Torah.
This is the season for celebrations. I am writing this article a mere two days before Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving. Not just the food, although that is usually great, but the opportunity to get together with family and friends and enjoy dinner together is awesome. Of course, with COVID restrictions, our ability to congregate is very limited but at least we can choose to sit down with those we love, either physically or virtually, and spend an evening together. Plus, in sharing a Thanksgiving dinner together, we are celebrating this great country that has granted us true religious freedom. “True religious freedom” means that not only do we have the right to exercise our religion without fear of harm but the actual ability to do so. And yes, I know about the problems of anti-Semitism and how it infects our society from the streets to the hallowed halls of Congress. Still, the United States of America is a country like no other in the world and it has given us Jews a home. To be a Jew in the United States is to have true religious protection and freedoms unlike any other country in the world with the exception of Israel. Anti-Semitism in the United States’ is a problem but, compared to Europe, it is light-years ahead.
But the celebration doesn’t end there. On December 10th they continue as we usher in Channukah. Now that’s a celebration. For eight days we light the Chanukiyah, sing songs, eat special foods, say Hallel in praise to Hashem for his salvation, and share gifts. Our celebration of Channukah is not only joyous but a holy time as well. It is filled with Mitzvot and customs that make the days special for all.
Take the gifts, for example. I know that many of us (myself included) like to purchase gifts of various types for the ones we love. This year, to let you in on a secret, Chana and I bought a pair of earrings for one of our granddaughters (shhhh… don’t tell her… it’s supposed to be a surprise!) among numerous other gifts. But, these gifts are an American innovation and are not part of the Mitzvah of Channukah. The custom is to give gifts of money to the poor and to children. Many reasons are offered for this custom. We give money to the poor so that they will have the resources to fulfill the Mitzvot of Channukah themselves. We give money to children because the Greeks tried to eliminate Torah learning, so we continue the fight against them by rewarding our children with gifts of money for the Torah they have learned.
We eat fried foods because that reminds us of the miracle of the oil where a bottle with enough oil to burn one day lasted eight.
Many people eat cheese to celebrate the bravery of Yehudit, the High Priest Yochanan’s daughter. The Greeks had passed a law that required all Jewish brides to first lay with a Greek hegemon before the wedding. A Greek general was quite taken with the beautiful Yehudit and wanted to be with her. She seemingly agreed. While they were alone, she fed him cheese to make him thirsty and then gave him wine to quench his thirst. The wine put him to sleep and she proceeded to behead him with his own sword. When the Greek’s learned of the assassination of their warlord, they ran away. By the way, this is also the reason that women are required to participate in the Mitzvah of lighting Channukah lamps, and many refrain from all work during at least the first half-hour after lighting, because women a crucial role in the miracle.
There is a difference between meaningless celebration and one that is infused with substance. We Jews center our celebrations around our observance and always imbue them with value and significance.
There’s a basic reason for this. You see, one who learns Torah discovers that Judaism is not a religion… it is a way of life. It is a constant effort to learn to do better, to understand more, to do more acts of kindness. This is the essence of Yiddishkeit. We achieve this goal through learning and performing Mitzvot. In fact, performing Mitzvot is what helps to fix the world. That is true Tikkun Olam.
So, when you celebrate Channukah this year remember that everything you do has meaning. You are celebrating the basics of religious freedom and the ability to follow the dictates of Torah and your conscience.
Now that I think of it, that’s something that Thanksgiving and Channukah have in common. A celebration of the simple pleasure of gathering for a Minyan and praying to G-d, the ability to walk into Tuvya’s or someplace like it and choose from hundreds of works of Jewish learning to enhance our lives, the ease of logging on to websites like Sefaria.org, Hebrewbooks.org, Chabad.com, Chabad.org, Yutorah.org (to name just a few) or even Youtube.com and find hundreds of thousands of published works, articles, and lectures on Torah topics. Our ability to learn and practice our faith has been threatened many times over the centuries and, each time, Hashem has saved us and preserved our ability to benefit from his kindness. In the second century, Hashem gave us victory over the Greeks, gave us back our independence and the freedom to return to his Torah. In the 17th century, he laid the foundation for a nation that would eventually destroy the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, provide a haven for the Jewish people, and a protector for the infant nation of Israel when it needed it most.
We Jews are, above all, a people who know gratitude. It is baked into our DNA. Both Channuka and Thanksgiving have the same theme: we give thanks to Hashem for saving us from our enemies and giving us a place where we can live, learn, think, and teach as Jews.
I think that’s worth celebrating, don’t you?
Chana and I hope you had a great and safe Thanksgiving. Please stay safe during Channukah. Celebrate with your family using the great technologies that are freely available and pray that the pandemic that continues to rage will subside quickly. G-d willing, may we soon celebrate together another salvation marking the end of the COVID-19 scourge. Happy Channukah!