Meir Feldman
Founder Project 97b

1st Night of Hanukkah – Our Most Important Gift

With Hanukkah just around the corner, we’re asking what might seem like a trivial question. This year, what gift will we give our loved ones – spouses, children and grandchildren? What gift will we give to our people, to the world?  Is there anything to give that could really matter, that could make a difference?

Rabbi Eliezer says this, in Sanhedrin 97b, ר׳ אליעזר אומר אם ישראל עושין תשובה נגאלין ואם לאו אין נגאלין.  “If Israel does teshuva – redemption! If not, no redemption!”  Hanukkah is a redemption story and Rabbi Eliezer tells us – if it’s redemption you want, teshuva is your gift.  Redemption for the Jewish people depends upon one thing – teshuva.

1900 years ago Rabbi Eliezer knew one of the most threatening problems we Jews would face in modern times.  He worried about catastrophic drought and devastating heat waves.  No, I don’t mean the climate – outside.  Rather, with stunning prophetic insight, Rabbi Eliezer was warning us about the devastating hurricanes within our Jewish community, the destructive fires of division, derision and hate. 

Rabbi Eliezer makes 2 very strong claims.  First, redemption is possible, even if we can’t fathom it.  Second, redemption has one and only one ingredient – the daily, mundane, practical choice, that we Jews call teshuva.  Imagine a world, says Rabbi Eliezer, in which on a daily basis we: a) acknowledge to ourselves a misdeed, a destructive word, an injury that we caused another; b) with remorse, we confess this to our ‘brother’, our friend or loved one; and c) we vow to never commit the same mistake again.  Imagine, says Rabbi Eliezer, that we and our loved ones could be as committed to teshuva, as we are to breakfast or the gym, our favorite sports team, or our daily davvening.  

The festival of Hanukkah says something similar.  A small force for light and goodness can overcome a large and dangerous army of darkness.  Teshuva is such a small act.  It’s just a choice that each and every one of us is called to make. 

In so many ways, Israel, we the Jewish people, are lighting up the world.  We know about the Start-Up Nation.  We’ve heard about the incredible insights, benefits, technologies that Israel and the Jewish people have brought and are bringing to humanity.  Rabbi Eliezer is not surprised.  He knew that we could, and would.  But he’s urging us to go further. 

Drip-technology, na-nose, re-walk, the microchip, flexible stent, electric and battery-powered vehicles, pill-cams, trees, the firewall, ICQ, disk-on-key, cyber-security, bee-hives, cloud data warehousing, to name just a few, are brilliant and  awesome – but they are not enough.  We Jews are meant to lead the world in matters of the heart and soul as well.  We Jews have an even higher mission to fulfill – to master, model and disseminate the art and science of teshuva.  Rabbi Eliezer was reminding us 1800 years ago – we have the technology.   

Everyone knows that the story of Hanukkah is either about a miracle – either a jar of oil or a military defeat.  But which is it?  Is the heart of Hanukkah about physical/military might, or about the power of teshuva, the cosmic potential of spiritual courage, of godliness, of a connection to the divine and to each other?

There is no question what our Sages and authorities have always believed.  Our Sages prescribed that we read the prophet Zekariah on Hanukkah. Here is its final message.   לֹ֤א בְחַ֙יִל֙ וְלֹ֣א בְכֹ֔חַ כִּ֣י אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י.  “Not by might, nor by power.  Rather, by My spirit alone.”  The Sages of old did not prescribe the reading of Judah Maccabees’ military victories on Hanukkah. Rather, every year we close with Zekariah’s famous words: “Not by might, not by power.  But by spiritual courage alone.”  A connection to divine, cosmic power comes from the love, compassion, repentance, forgiveness of the human heart and soul – that is teshuva.   (See the Malbim on Zekh 4:6.)

Moreover, our Sages didn’t even preserve the historical record, the military successes of the Maccabees.  Judah Maccabee’s prowess in war was of no spiritual or historical priority to our Sages.  These historical books were intentionally excluded from our biblical canon. They cannot be found in TaNaKh.  (Humanity knows the books of Maccabees 1, 2, 3 only because of the Christian canon.)  Instead, our Sages emblazoned in our memory a story that the Maccabees found a kosher cruse of oil in the desecrated temple.  That jar of oil was enough to burn for 1 day.  But, it lasted 8.  There was a miracle for 7 days.  Every year, instead of stories of war, we tell a story of faith, of a small flame, of a little bit of light that we need to generate, in order to transform our world.

We know that the glorious redemption of Hanukkah is very short-lived.  The impossible and intoxicating military victory of the Maccabees begins a terrible intra-Jewish battle.  Intense, intra-Jewish hatred follows.  Within decades, the Jews of the liberated land descended into a deep and prolonged civil war.  (See Lawrence Schiffman, The Maccabean Revolt.)  The result of this is to be expected. Our violent, internal civil war has two tragic consequences – our holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash is eventually destroyed, and the Romans take back, reassert their sovereignty over the land of Israel itself.  We lost – our most sacred place and most sacred land – by hating each other, by going to war against each other.

As was recently written by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, two times in our history we Jews had sovereignty over the land of Israel – for about 80 years.  We squandered both of those cherished moments.  Twice, we failed at the privilege of governing ourselves.  Both times, we chose politics and power over teshuva and redemption.  Hanukkah is a profoundly relevant time to give the gift of teshuva. 

Sanhedrin 97b pleads, urges us to do teshuva.  Whispering inside those words is the plea: don’t cause history to repeat itself.  We can prevent that.  We can change the course of our own history.  We can be the sovereign force over our own beloved land into eternity, but not if we are at war with each other.    

Our well-being as parents, as families, as communities, as a people, and as a nation, depends on teshuva.  We all know this.  Every day in our homes is a day of teshuva:  thanking our loved ones for acts of kindness; accepting their apologies for mistakes they made; seeking their forgiveness for small mistakes (and sometimes large ones) we have made.

Lastly, we say Sh’hekhiyanu every year only on the first night of Hanukkah.  “Thank you God for enabling us to reach this very moment.”  But why only on the first night?  Maybe this is why –   in order to highlight how hard it is to initiate the words – “I am sorry”, “I apologize”, “I truly understand”, “Please forgive me.” “Of course I forgive you.”  We always want the other person to start, to initiate. “She started it.”  “He caused this.”  

The Sh’hechiyanu is reminding us that the Maccabean courage that can bring redemption – is the courage to start, to initiate, to speak to loved ones – from our hearts.  The moment to initiate often melts away so quickly.  Tragically, we often squander the moment to begin our teshuva.  Rabbi Eliezer is telling us about the most important start-up project of the Jewish people – teshuvah.  May we all find a gift of teshuvah to give this Hanukkah.

About the Author
One of the most profound and inspiring experiences of my life was attending the Wednesday night Bible Study class at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That was July 1, 2015, just 2 weeks after the tragic and horrific murder of the Charleston 9. The pain and faith, the heartbreak and hope of the grieving family members we met (and hold as dear friends to this day) was one of the most uplifting religious experiences of my life. Alongside Rabbi Tara Feldman, I served as a congregational rabbi for over 20 years, including the last 13 years at our beloved Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York. There were so many highs throughout those years -- one of them was to bring 8 amazing sisters of Myra Thompson to Great Neck. What I now know is that for many years as a law student and attorney, long before my rabbinical journey, I yearned for a different sense of meaning and purpose. That was what I discovered in my second mountain, in my steep and beautiful climb into a passionate Jewish life (taking a term from David Brooks). And now, having made aliyah with my wife and children, I think that I am experiencing the blessing of a third mountain. That is what Israel, Jerusalem and Project 97b feel like – yet another inspiring and deeply challenging ascent to a beautiful and unattainable peak.