Greetings from Jerusalem, one of the only cities in the world where being Jewish is taken for granted and being religious is the norm, regardless of your religion. A city where a visiting Jew feels home and you have to look hard to find a non kosher restaurant. A city that has a vibe all of its own while breathing the fresh mountainous air feels like you are fulfilling a mitzvah. In Jerusalem it’s common to have unique customs that are limited to only Jerusalem. Shabbat candles are lit a full forty minutes before shabbat and chanukiyot are lit outside of the front door.
On the flight to Israel I read an interesting article about a unique custom. A man walked into a bar in Dakar, Senegal and before he was able to sit down three local patrons shook his hand to greet him. The man was overwhelmed as the greetings and handshakes continued throughout the evening. He was overly impressed and asked about this novel and intriguing Sengalise custom. The locals responded that it wasn’t a Sengalise custom at all; a foreigner once came into the bar and shook everyone’s hand and they just continued. Often, the best customs ignore what we thought was perfect yesterday and embrace a new understanding of what’s perfect.
Some Jewish customs are familial and passed down through generations while often they are introduced by a life altering situation that brings new meaning and novel ideas into our life. I recently heard of a new Chanukah tradition. Instead of children receiving presents everyday; the children were able to pick out presents and deliver them to children in need. They had the double joy of shopping for the toys they would have wanted but also the joy in seeing the smile on someone else’s face. I was told the first year one family introduced this Chanukah custom, their children were less than enthusiastic, but as the years went by it was the children that pushed the parents to increase the number of gifts they gave to others.
All too often we participate in customs that have evolved in a manner vastly different than its origins. Take the humble ‘Chanukah gelt’ an idea meant to teach children to be cognizant of the need of helping others. Every year on the fifth night of Chanukah, children would be given money to distribute to the needy. The fifth night was chosen as it is the only night of Chanukah that never falls on a Shabbat. Unfortunately, it’s evolution has been dominated by market influences promoting eight days of commercialism as an antidote to Christmas hype. I would rather focus on a recent story in the Chanukah edition of the Jerusalem Post. “We’re back again on the eve of Chanukah at Pantry Packers to prepare meals and wrap presents for those in need of a little kindness”, said Ambassador Friedman. “I can think of no better way to usher in the holidays!” What a nice custom to consider introducing into our Chanukah.
I’m writing this article overlooking the beautiful city of Jerusalem; a city which only a few decades ago was only a dream. Today, Jerusalem is once again a metropolis for Jews where the miracle of Chanukah is alive and pulsating. In my gaze I saw the horizon alight with a sea of chanukiyot while street vendors sold a variety of decadent doughnuts. The scene wasn’t even slightly reminiscent of Christmas back home and few if any trees were cut down in celebration. (Not only is Israel minimizing the deforestation of trees but Jewish law demands we use replenishable olive oil instead of fossil fuel for Chanukah lightings.)
However in the days of Chanukah 2200 hundred years ago another reality came to fruition. Many Jews who abandoned their Jewish identity and adopted Hellenistic or Greek culture saw the light of the menorah and came home. That miracle was far greater than a drop of oil burning for eight days; it was the spark of Judaism that was reignited in the hearts of our brothers and sisters. Once again a new custom was adopted; the lighting of a chanukiyah for eight days. It was a custom aimed at eliminating the greatest threat to Israel for the past 2200 years; the apathy and assimilation of the majority of our Jewish community.
On the threshold of 2020 not much has changed. It is not only our traditional enemies that seek our demise. It is the Jew who is swayed by cultural influences to denounce Israel and abandon any connection to it. It is the Jew who is no longer willing to hold hands and rejoice with their fellow Jews on Israel’s accomplishments and successes. It is the Jew that demonizes Israel for protecting itself while justifying those who seek its destruction. Indeed our greatest threat is the Jew that fails to heed the lessons of history; it is the Jew who thinks by emulating the philosophies of others, they will be accepted as equals.
But it’s also the Jew that would want to embrace and identify but doesn’t feel welcome or accepted. It’s the Jew that may have veered off the path and can’t find their way home. Thus today the custom of lighting a chanukiyah takes on an even greater purpose. It hopes to be an inspiration for all Jews especially those who have left Judaism in search of new and different inspirations. We hope the candles will have sufficient light to show them the path back home. Eight nights may be insufficient but a minimal light can overcome the deepest darkness.
Chanukah Sameach, Happy Chanukah and please add extra oil to ensure that your flame burns even longer. And remember that miracles can still happen.
Rabbi Jack Engel