By Rabby Michael Schwab.
This week we entered into the Hebrew month of Heshvan. This month is also referred to as MarHeshvan – ‘The bitter month of Heshvan”, because it contains no holidays. In fact, after Simchat Torah, we must wait until Hanukkah for the next holiday. In modern America Hanukkah is often characterized by the giving of gifts. Our children and grandchildren eagerly anticipate the presents they will receive each night as the family gathers to light the candles. However, as many of you know, the idea of gift giving on Hanukkah is a relatively recent addition to the observance of the holiday.
Yet, despite the modern origin of this custom, on some level, Hanukkah has always been about gifts, though not in a material sense. The true gift of Hanukkah actually lies in its profound spiritual essence which has the power to be transformative for each and every Jew. The Hebrew word, “Hanukkah”, actually means “dedication”. This is because, after the victory of the Maccabees, the Jewish people were able to redeem the holy Temple, which the Hasmonean Greeks had desecrated and used to store their livestock. In a ceremony that began with the rekindling of the lamps of the sanctuary, the leaders of Israel dedicated the Temple to the service of God once again.
However, this deed was much more than the physical dedication of a building. The mere fact that the rabbis simply refer to this holiday as the holiday of “dedication”, without specifying exactly to what, allows the spiritual power of such a dedication to transcend any specific historical event and allows the holiday to take on multiple meanings. In other words, the gift given to us on the holiday of Hanukkah is embodied in its ability to inspire us, today, to dedicate ourselves to a higher purpose in a way that is relevant to each of our current situations. Hanukkah, therefore, is a personal opportunity for us each to rekindle our individual flames and to inspire us to live up to our ideals.
In religious terms, Hanukkah thus gives Jews a chance to renew our faith and to renew our commitment to Jewish life. Thus, ironically, during a holiday whose practice was so influenced by the surrounding Christian culture, we are actually supposed to think about how we can integrate our Judaism more deeply into our lives. Can we renew our dedication to following Jewish law and tradition? Can we renew our dedication to fulfilling the mitzvah of helping others in need? Can we renew our dedication to supporting and loving our family? Can we renew our dedication to building our community? On Hanukkah we get a chance to take stock of what values we have been actively fulfilling and we get a chance to assess how successful we have been with the personal resolutions that we may have made during the High Holidays only a few weeks ago.
So rather than a bitter month, we can see this month as a time to plan how we are going to re-dedicate ourselves to our Judaism. Here at Beth El, we have so many ways to do this: help make a minyan, participate in Social Action and Hazak to help others, write a letter in the Torah to fulfill 613, celebrate Shabbat and holidays and participate in the many learning opportunities available. Looking forward to seeing you here at Beth El!