A Message on Ritual, Courtesy of the Chanukah Menorah
We find ourselves right in the midst of Chanukah. We’ve had a once-in-the-history-of-civilization event when we celebrated Thanksgivingkeh or Thanksalatka, which was the convergence of Thanksgiving Thursday with the first day of Chanukah. It is a once-in-the-history-of-civilization event because the last time Chanukah was this early was 1861, before Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. The next time it might happen will be 76,000 or so years from now in the 800th century! That is because the Jewish calendar is drifting some 4 days ahead every millenium or so (not bad for an ancient solilunar calendar!). In the next few centuries, we will encounter two years where the first night of Chanukah will be a Thursday evening–after Thanksgiving but never will again to precede Thanksgiving. Not until the time that the calendar makes a full loop around the general calendar will this phenomenon occur again. The computer model shows this to be somewhere in 776th century, but there is zero chance the Jewish calendar will be allowed to continue as is, since the Torah instructs that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkoth are autumn holidays (in the Northern Hemisphere) and Pesach is a spring festival. Ergo, never was and never will be again!
What can we learn from this? Perhaps that a perfect symmetry between the general things around us in our American clime, and those things in our Jewish identity, are rare, and therefore, if we want to remain Jewish, we must work at it and be deliberate in our ceremonies, customs, family life and ritual. These are the elements that keep us distinctively Jewish, even more so that than the wonderful work we do communally and ethically. That is what is easily understood from a recent Pew Study on Jewish identity. Rabbi David Wolpe, of Los Angeles, puts it succinctly in a Washington Post article. “The ethical good works we do are wonderfully important... that which is continually diluted eventually will disappear.” Being an ethical person is central to Judaism but not uniquely Jewish. Fighting for social justice, while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish. Wearing tefilin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, kashrut, Jewish religious community–these things are activities that keep the core of tradition alive. As Jews leave the latter and profess only the former, adherence weakens.
The chanukiah has much to teach us about the dynamics of ritual. Holding to ritual and observance is not an easy task, but habit and resolve can lock in ritual if we are willing to put forth the effort. Levi Ishak of Berdichev teaches this in his study of the argument between Hillel and Shammai about the proper way to light the menorah. Disciples of Shammai said that one should start with eight candles and work one’s way down each night, just as the little cask of oil was reduced with every ensuing day. The disciples of Hillel (who win out) argued the opposite–the first night should begin with just one candle, and we increase each night, just as we increase in holiness through the festival! The Rabbi of Berdichev teaches that from this we learn about ritual mitzvoth. They shine bright in novelty but then are reduced by repetition. But he also tells us that this is not always so. Much like the thirsty traveler in the desert, trying to find an oasis, when he does, he races to the water well and begins drinking. The initial excitement of finding the well dissipates from the moment he discovers it, but as he begins to drink, his thirst builds even more as he gulps the water. So it is with ritual. We are excited when we find a beautiful ritual–lighting the candles, saying the Kiddush, blessing our children at our table, observing a quiet Shabbat, going to Friday night services–but in time, the initial excitement can wane. But we must give it time! We must create family TRADITION. Eventually our customs and our rituals become our family expressions and we wear them like a worn-in glove. A full day of Shabbat may at first seem constricting, but with time, this practice, taken to this more habitual level, deepens our thirst for Shabbat. Eventually, we feel released by Shabbat, not constricted by it.
Chanukah instructs us that being citizens of the world doesn't hold us to the Jewish people. Many Jewish people traded their distinctive Jewish rituals customs and faith for the vogue lifestyle of Hellenism. I am sure that some of them were very nice people and did good works. But they were lost to Judaism. The Hasmoneans drew a line in the sand and proclaimed, “God is important, Torah is important, Jewish observance is important.” Is it not time that each of us look honestly in the mirror? Should we not resolve, in the face of the impact of the Pew study, to make ritual observance, dietary rules, and Shabbat more significant in our lives? Ethical activities and tikun olam are marvelous activities. But they do not etch our Jewish identity as does ritual. The answer is not one or the other. The answer is that both are necessary for our consideration and our involvement. May we think about these matters as we ponder the Chanukah lights, and like the Macabees let us fight for our uniqueness! And, let us say "Amen."