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In memory of my father Samuel Milgram and his birthday on the third Hanukkah Light
When almost all your congregants raise their hands to the question “Do you have a Christmas tree up this season in your home?” it’s quite unsettling for a rabbi. This happened to me back in 1989 in a rural pulpit. The Hanukkah-Christmas dilemma full-blown. What to do, if anything?
A creative program came to mind during a night of troubled dreams. The president of the congregation, ever a supporter of my tendency towards R&D on behalf of the Jewish future, organized everything perfectly to my specifications. And the congregants came, almost all of them.
More after the jump.
First, we set up the synagogue president’s dining room perfectly ready for Passover.
Then we set up her basement, perfectly ready for Christmas with a whole set up borrowed from a pious Christian neighbor.
Then we set up her den with menorah, dreidl, Hanukkah decorations and foods.
Perhaps you can intuit why this particular set-up, a month before Hanukkah and Christmas which fell close together that year.
Bringing in the Light of Spiritual Intimacy and Understanding
As each couple arrived for the program, they received a questionnaire suggesting they go to the Passover room, if raised primarily Jewish, and the Christmas room, if raised primarily Christian. And there to sit quietly and sing along with the music, look at the tree, the art, the food, allow memories to arise and then answer a series of questions.
To the best of my recollection the questions were:
1. Please list all holiday and religious symbols in this room and their meaning to the best of your knowledge.
2. Make a list of those with whom you’ve primarily shared this holiday with over the years and how that is for you.
3. What are your favorite foods for this holiday?
4. What are your most and least favorite customs and practices for this holiday and why?
5. Is this a holy day for you and what makes it holy for you?
Now, if you are in the Passover room please go to the Christmas room and vice-versa, turn this page over and answer do the same as you did here, answering the questions as well for that room as duplicated on the other side of this page. When you have been to both rooms, we will meet up in the Hanukkah room for a discussion of our findings, three couples will explain why they either a) have a Christmas tree and a menorah in their home, b) have only a menorah for this season c) have neither. We will conclude with a Hanukkah teaching with Reb Goldie.
What Do These Symbols Tell Us?
It was so moving to watch laughter and tears flow softly as congregants moved from room to room experiencing the differences among the holidays. The sharing was profound and interesting. What does the wine mean on the seder table? Jews would say joy, several Christians reported it symbolizing the blood of their Lord Jesus. Wine in Judaism actually symbolizes the joy of the gift of life, the life-force itself.
The painting of Jesus on the Cross that we were given to put up in the room with tree, presents and carols, Yule log (both aflame in fire place, and a yummy cake), Wassail bowl, etc. Jews reported sadness and some fear at seeing a young Jewish man dying a horrible death as a religious symbol, Christians reported the symbol of what their Lord Jesus did for them that their sins might be forgiven.
We listened to each other, educated each other, forgave each other our misunderstandings, appreciated fears of loss of identity, of family connections and histories, made room for respective persecutions across the ages. The power of Passover, one of our major holy days, became so palpably meaningful it seemed to all present. Dealing with the bitterness of slavery and taskmasters of old, within and present employers on the metaphor level. The importance of a holy day that values the tears of effort and pain shed on the way to eliminating slavery. Breaking the bread of affliction, the matzah over our hearts to led in the Light of healing…and so much more.
Balancing a Festival against a Holy Day – Ahhh, We Get It
Christmas tree envy was indeed described and receded as the program progressed and a striking concept emerged through our studies. The Hanukkiah, the menorah, is mentioned twenty-seven times in the Torah. Precise details of its construction are given when Moses is alone on the mountaintop, listening to G*d and seeing the Architect’s vision (Exodus 25:31-40). The menorah, then, becomes a symbol of this listening and holding of the Light of awareness that began for him at the Burning Bush. The menorah’s original shape is, indeed, that of a tree.
More on Menorah as Inspiring Metaphor
Torah (The Five Books of Moses) is called a Tree of Life and is made of the original light filtered, condensed, formed into creation, and encoded in letters dancing with energy. The menorah symbolizes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the awareness it only takes one person of vision to lead the way to face the pharaoh’s of our times and all times, the menorah is our Burning Bush. Its light is God as Torah, filtered through the prism of your soul and actions, focusing us on the mission of the Jewish people, to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self centered lives.
The original menorah had seven branches. The Hanukkah menorah has nine, to commemorate the Maccabees’ eight day festival for rededication of the temple, plus one extra branch for the shamash, a helper candle to ignite the others.
What about the miracle of the cruse of oil lasting eight days? This and many other stories arose long after the event, entering the realm of our tribal sacred myth. The Hanukkah menorah, however, does recall miracles-that there was enough “oil,” then and now, enough of the Jewish soul left after so much assimilation and trauma, to rededicate ourselves to the covenant of living as Jews. Even today a huge menorah engraved with scenes from Jewish history stands outside Israel’s parliament, an enduring symbol of that dedication.
The Seleucid Empire, part of the Greek Empire and its intent for homogeneous practices among its citizens, had enacted edicts prohibiting Jews from living our Torah. We were prohibited at peril of death to observe the sabbath, have a Jewish name, keep separate milk (the gift of life) from meat (life taken away), and worse. Hanukkah also symbolizes the courage it takes to trust and maintain our ways. We are one of the longest continually existing peoples on the planet with much of depth, importance and beauty to transmit across the generations. We exist for a purpose.
On the Roman arch of Titus, commemorating the conquering of Jerusalem, the Romans are shown carrying off the menorah in triumph. Those Romans didn’t know that the most precious part of all had been left behind, carried in the soul-sparks of our people, every one of us a branch of a hidden menorah, carrying the light of Torah.
Through our congregation’s program and studies we became a menorah of community in the room; each soul a candle burning brightly with a vision of God’s light coming into us as inspiration for living mitzvah-centered lives.
Making Each Night of Hanukkah Remarkable
We began to brainstorm how to make each night of Hanukkah a gift of awareness, spiritual growth, family and friend connection, and caring beyond our immediate circle. Jewish families, someone noted at that program, tend to randomly come home with gifts for our children throughout the year. Those presents are one way we show love and recognition of the interests and abilities of our child. On Hanukkah, we realized, the present is how we receive and utilize the light of Torah.
To transform from consumer consciousness to mitzvah consciousness on Hanukkah, over the years with communities, we’ve brainstormed:
On the first candle of Hanukkah some of us venture with into attics, closets and garages to find surplus things – bikes, tv’s, vcrs, computers; and after school and before lighting the menorah, brought these goods to family service professionals who know those in need…
Some of us focused on saving energy and care for the planet by putting in more efficient light bulbs, having energy audits, doubling up on blankets and lower thermostats for another day of Hanukkah…
Some hold an Israel arts evening as the Hanukkah candles glow, each family showing something they’ve acquired to symbolize the miracle of Israel realized in our times in their hearts and homes….Some also hold out a light to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and hold a Hanukkah fundraiser for joint learning centers and summer camps…
The fifth candle might include an invitation to bring a photo of Hanukkah family times past, to tell and video stories of those no longer with us whose lives added light to our own… Some consider our own inner light on Hanukkah, is our spark dim or bright? What do we need to do to heal in order to become better able to serve and savor in this life?
By the sixth candle some of us take our tzedakah boxes (where we regularly drops coins and bills to accumulate for charity) and open them to count what has accrued over the year for distribution. Each person brings information about a good cause and those present become a holy allocations committee, sometimes adding Hanukkah gelt – funds dedicated with care on Hanukkah…
The seventh candle might involve bringing a menorah, candles and home-made latkes over to share at a shelter for abused women and children, homeless persons, or a home for elders…
The last night of Hanukkah, as eight lights blaze in the menorah sometimes we do an Internet search on the meaning and places in Torah and Jewish literature and history of our Jewish names and make or give a piece of jewelry to honor the freedom we have to hold those names dear…
The eighth night is also a time to dream of peace and good lives for all, to discuss and donate to causes that work for education, well-being, the environment and peace. The root letters of Hanukkah come from the term for education and dedication. All ages who can be present for such discussions increase the light of understanding and let it fuel constructive action.
How the Christmas Tree Question Received Closure
My first pulpit showed me how to cast light on making Hanukkah spiritually meaningful. On the Shabbat of Hanukkah they brought their handmade menorahs from a congregational workshop and in front of the lights dedicated themselves to advancing their learning and practice. Each year I taught a series on one of the ten major aspects of living a mitzvah-centered life – Prayer, God, Torah, Shabbat, Hebrew, Halachah (guidelines), Mitzvot (actions to engage in and refrain from), Life Cycle Rituals, Peoplehood and Hebrew, our sacred language wherein so much wisdom and light abides. These teachings became my first three books.
My first congregation’s farewell service to launch me into a new career chapter as a seminary dean offered closure on the original Christmas tree question. After a quilt with a square of learning from each family was presented as part of the ritual, the president asked, “How many present put up a Christmas tree for the family at your home on the holidays?” As I recall, one new member family and one long-time member family raised their hands. I encouraged them to go to extended families for Christmas with love and joy, bearing and receiving gifts if that is expected. Their own homes had become Jewish homes with a tree of the light of Torah, the menorah at the center of their holiday season.
Blessings this Hanukkah to experience and increase “de”-Light.