Sunday, December 9, 2012

Miracle of Miracles: #PopCultureChanukah

Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, began last night. Here are some thoughts that I shared in our congregational bulletin.

Happy Chanukah!

A colleague of mine has started a bit of a Twitter tradition. Before each holiday, she rounds up a bunch of us Jewish professional types, and we create a “pop culture holiday.” Each of us posts song lyrics appropriate to the theme of the holiday. Perhaps Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” for #PopCulturePassover or the Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” for #PopCultureShavuot. You all might guess that this year, one of my submissions for #PopCultureElul was “Once In a Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads (see why by reading or listening to my Rosh HaShanah sermon on our website!). As a music lover, pop culture consumer, and Jewish learner—I enjoy seeing these things intersect, and I do think it helps me think differently about the real themes and meanings behind our holiday celebrations.

As I write this, I am getting myself geared up for #PopCultureChanukah. Here’s one to get you started—a classic from the band REO Speedwagon:

And even as I wander, 
I'm keeping you in sight. You're a candle in the window, On a cold, dark winter's night...

I’ve been fortunate to spend several Chanukahs in Israel, including two with Congregation Rodeph Sholom families. Whenever I am there, one of my favorite things to do—in addition to the delicious dulce de leche sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) which I ingest with much gusto—is to simply walk through the streets, particularly of Jerusalem. There is something magical about it; in just about every window—or in front of the house in a specially designed display case—there is a chanukiah shining brightly. There is, indeed, a candle in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night.

There is real significance in where we place the Chanukah lights. The rabbis of the Talmud, in discussing lighting the Chanukah candles, introduce the notion of this very public display. The lights should be lit where others can see, our tradition teaches, because we are supposed to publicize the miracle. This commandment, known in Hebrew/Aramaic as pirsumei nisa, is only commanded on two holidays. We are asked to publicize the miracle on Chanukah, and on Purim.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an 18th century Hasidic teacher, ask a radical question. He says: Why is Chanukah, even more than Passover, the holiday of miracles? Wouldn’t we, who celebrate the Exodus from Egypt each and every day in our prayer service, think that Passover is the holiday, that the splitting of the sea is the ultimate miracle, the ultimate sign of God’s power? His answer is even more radical than his question, though. He teaches that the reason Chanukah is miraculous is that we did not wait for God. On Chanukah and on Purim, we were agents of our own change.

The dictionary definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” Noam Zion, an Israeli educator, suggests that there are four ways that we can understand miracles, four ways that contain both Divine power and human experience.

  1. Public miracles usually violate the laws of nature, in order to teach us to look beyond the physical to a higher realm of reality.
  2. Private miracles are the hidden coincidences that sometimes change the direction of our lives because of amazing timing, which we might understand as Divine destiny.
  3. The laws of nature are themselves a miracle created by God and worthy of wonder.
  4. The Biblical miracles are always associated with historical redemption because they point not to the violation of natural order which is seen as Divinely beautiful, but to the violation of human order which is so often corrupt and oppressive.

The story of Chanukah offers us any number of miracles to celebrate: the miracle of the oil, the miracle of a small group of passionate fighters victorious over a more powerful foe, the miracle of Jewish survival and Jewish identity. And while we may find God’s presence in any one of these miracles, we also know that these were human hands and hearts which prevailed. Later, there is a debate amongst our sages: is the expectation of publicizing the miracle an internal one, meant to strengthen our own faith and commitment? Or is it meant to be external, showing the world who we are and what we believe? Perhaps, in classic Jewish tradition, it needs to be both.

This year, as we prepare to celebrate Chanukah, take a moment to think about the miracles in your life. Join us on December 14 for a joyous celebration of the miracle of community. Think about ways that you, as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak suggest, can be agents of miracle-making, making a difference in the world. Still recovering from Sandy, our city needs us to be miracle-makers!

And, if you have any other song lyrics to suggest, Tweet me @rabbilaufer!  I wish you a joyous Chanukah, filled with light and miracles, and candles in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night.

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