Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Hanukah (Mikketz) 5780 – December 28, 2019

Hanukah (Mikketz) 5780

December 28, 2019


Shabbat Shalom – Hanukah Sameach.


Oh Hanukah – Oh Hanukah! Have you noticed that more people are hooked into this Hanukah story and celebration then we have seen in the past? With a population of less than two percent of the country, everyone is greeting us with our “Happy Hanukah”, and it has fully entered mainstream media. As a kid, I remember a singing “Happy Hanukah” CBS commercial.  It was a big deal. Maybe because of the juxtaposition with Christmas.  Or maybe because there are Jewish members in so many Christian families!


Hallmark had a Hanukah special, and the festival came up in many other programs. There is so much about Hanukah in the interfaith setting – of Hanukah being observed by Jews in a Christmas setting. I guess that could be a sermon for another day.


We know a lot about Hanukah’s meanings, and that is good. You should notice that I said “meanings” because we have learned that there are multiple stories of Hanukah. Abigail Pogrebin, on a wonderful heartwarming PBS special, asked the viewers if they knew that Hanukah is essentially a story of Jew vs. Jew and not primarily a story of the Jewish people revolting against the most powerful conquering army in the world, the Hellenized Syrians.


We see there are multiple strains in the story, and we find there are differences in the perspectives on miracles and what the miracle was. In our lifetime our perceptions of Hanukah changed after the miracle of Israel’s birth. “Maccabee” became a symbol of macho, a beer, a sports team.


Most of us eat latkes, and many of us eat sufganiyot. Roman Jews eat fried artichokes and fried chicken (I bet you didn’t know that!) and some people eat dairy.


Do you know the famous painting by the Renaissance painter Caravaggio that shows Judith holding the head of Holofernes? It’s a reflection of a noncanonical story of the Jewish woman Judith who was being forced by the Greek general Holofernes.  Judith the wise Jewish woman gave him salty cheese which made him very thirsty. She then gave him strong wine to quench his thirst. He became sleepy, fell fast asleep and she proceeded to behead the general. It is a story for the ages and has been painted by many great painters over the centuries.


Because the processes began with the eating of cheese, there are those who eat dairy on Hanukah! Oh, what religion can do to people!


After years of study about this festival and many years of teaching and speaking about this celebration I came upon a novel notion that draws our attention to a very contemporary phenomenon. This came from my colleague Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg and it really resonated with me.


Wohlberg wrote[i]:


Do you know who I want to be when I grow up?  I want to be Taylor Swift!


If anyone here doesn’t know, Taylor Swift is one of the world’s leading recording artists and songwriters of our time.… She is one of the bestselling music artists of all time, having sold more than 40 million albums.… But all that is not why I want to be like her. She’s got something that every rabbi, priest, and minister yearns for: when Taylor Swift speaks, people listen!


Taylor Swift has 112 million followers on Instagram – 112 million who are anxious to hear what she has to say.  This year Taylor Swift spoke…and people listened!  Before this year’s election, Taylor Swift, for the first time, came out and endorsed two candidates in her native Tennessee.  She told her followers to register and vote.  According to Vote.org, 65,000 registrations came in within 24 hours! The voter site within 24 hours had 155,940 unique visitors. This compared to the usual average of 14,000. As the spokesperson for Vote.org put it: “Thank God for Taylor Swift!”


Wohlberg continues:


I’m reading all this, and it got me thinking: what does Taylor Swift got that I ain’t got?  Why do people follow her advice when it comes to politics?  What is the depth of her knowledge based on? So, I did some research and I discovered that after graduating high school, she had no further education, but immediately entered the world of entertainment. From there, she made it big! Now here are some of the other things I learned about Taylor Swift:


– 10 years ago, she got into a fight with Kanye West – another great political mind.  They fought over whether Taylor Swift deserved to beat out Beyoncé for the Best Female Video of the Year.


– A year later, Kanye apologized.


– Three years later he unapologized!


– In 2015 they reunited but by 2016 they were fighting again over the words in one of his songs, which attacked Taylor.


– In 2017, she struck back in one of her songs.


– And in 2018 Kanye supported Donald Trump and Taylor Swift didn’t.


These are our political prognosticators.  Isn’t this crazy?  Not as crazy as the fact that millions of people take the political opinions of people like this seriously! Yes, there has always been “hero” worship. We have worshiped celebrities for their exceptional achievements in sports and in the arts.  But their advice?  To emulate them?  Audiences listening to their every word? I am reminded of the words that Chicago Cubs outfielder, Andre Dawson, spoke in regard to being a role model for children. His words: “I want all dem kids to do what I do, to look up to me. I want all dem kids to copulate me.” And that’s just what we do! Taylor Swift only ranks 9th in popularity on Instagram. Do you know who some of the other popular people are with even larger followings? Such distinguished people of letters as Selina Gomez, Ariana Grande, Kylie Jenner and of course, one of the great thinkers of our time: Kim Kardashian. What do they know? We would all do well to remember the words of football commentator and former player, Joe Theisman, who said: “Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein!” Norman Einstein! That’s what happens when we put people like this on pedestals, making them worthy of emulation.


Judaism never bought into this mindset. Think about our holidays. … We don’t focus on people …we focus on ideas, on ideas of justice and forgiveness and religious liberty and freedom and revelation. Look at this holiday of Hanukah.… Our sages ask the strangest of all Talmudic questions regarding this holiday. The Talmud asks in Tractate Shabbat “Mai Hanukah” – What is Hanukah?” That’s a question? What is Hanukah?


The Talmud never asks: What is Pesach? It has a whole tractate that tells us what Pesach is. The Talmud never asks: What is Sukkot or Purim or any other holiday. Only when it comes to Hanukah does it ask this question: “Mai Hanukah– what is Hanukah?” And perhaps stranger than the question is the answer that is given. Just a couple of sentences where we are told, “When the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oils that were in it and when the Hasmonean Dynasty triumphed and defeated the Syrian/Greeks, they searched but found only one container of oil which had been laid aside with the seal of the High Priest. There was enough oil in it to light for one day. A miracle occurred with it lit with it for eight days. The following year they fixed and established these days as festivals of praise and thanksgiving.


That’s what Hanukah is? That’s it? What about Mattathias and Judah the Maccabee? And the war against Antiochus? What about the stirring story of the Maccabean revolt; a small group of Jews who stood up to and defeated the mightiest army on earth? What about that story? What’s with the question: What is Hanukah? And what’s with the answer?


There are a few possibilities. One suggestion is that the rabbis feared to put the Maccabees into the text because the Romans might see it as purposefully trying to incite the Jews to another rebellion. But another possibility had to do with the rabbis’ aversion to violence and to hero-worship.


They didn’t like making these people into heroes because eventually, their behavior was not very heroic. Eventually, the descendants of Mattathias turned on each other, instituted strange practices into the Temple and tried to take power that wasn’t theirs.


Those Jewish leaders became corrupted by power.


Did you know that there is a statue of Judah the Maccabee displayed at the West Point Military Academy?  He is part of the ‘Nine Worthies ’who are admired to this day for their military achievements.  Do you know who the eight others are? Joshua, David, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hector, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon. That is quite a collection!  That is quite a tribute to Judah Maccabee! But did you know about it? Very few of us do. You know why? Because we don’t teach that to our children. Judaism understood that making individuals into heroic figures could only lead to disappointment and alienation.


Does that mean that Judaism doesn’t have any heroic figures?


My friend Rabbi Ed Feinstein suggested there is one such person in the Hanukah story. One who made the whole story possible, who was responsible for the whole miracle occurring. One person who in his own way was the greatest hero of them all.


Do you know his name? Neither does Rabbi Feinstein.  He was referring to an unknown priest, who in a period of despair and gloom –  when statues of Gods were more important than lives, the Temple was defiled, and the occupying Syrian soldiers were killing Jewish loyalists – this Kohen hid a little bit of oil for future use when God had saved his people. He had an unshakable faith that the dire present condition would pass and that there would be a redemption; a cleansing of the Temple and a need for its re-dedication. No, he’s not one of our people’s most famous heroes. He’s just one of the countless average people who have made Jewish survival possible. Our heroes are our people; everyone and anyone can be a scholar, a teacher, a rabbi or synagogue president.


When you think about it, we have a lot of people like this today. I can mention so many, but I want to mention you. You are here today and come week in and week out, not only for personal fulfillment but also because you know it keeps our flame alive. You who work for organizations that support learning, endow hospitals and work to combat diseases. You who work for the causes of freedom, fairness, and equality; and, support synagogues and our schools. You who continue to work for the Israel we love.


You know what else? You don’t have to be a soldier! In our own lives, we battle for the Jewish people. For their learning and their rights. For the lights to remain burning.


Our heroes are great thinkers, writers, philosophers and rabbis; researchers, doctors, and thought leaders. They don’t have many followers on Instagram, but we know their impact will be here beyond today.


Our true heroes need to be courageous and they need to be knowledgeable.  They need to think, and they need to lead by exemplary lives.


These are the hidden heroes of our time. No, they may not make the same contributions as a Norman Einstein, but they are people with an innate kindness and goodness and decency and honor; that come what may, keeps our country and our people strong.


On Hanukah we thank God for al hanisim– “for the miracles” – miracles in the plural. Not just the miracle of the famous heroic figure like Mattathias and the miracle for the unsung, unknown heroes like the priest who had such faith in the future. Now I find it fascinating that Al Nanisimprayer is placed in the siddur right after Modim Anachnu lach– the prayer we say in every Amidah three times a day – four times on Shabbat.  The special prayer for the miracle of Hanukah is introduced by prayer:Modim anachanu lach. We give thanks to you, oh Lord. Al nisecha shbchol yom imanu val niflosecha v’tovosecho shbchol eis – for all thy miracles which are daily with us and all thy wonders and goodness that is with us at all times.


Taylor Swift is so very popular.  As Kim Kardashian, Tom Brady, and Lebron James may be so very popular and so good at what they do. But we see our miracles unfold in this natural world and we see our survival lighting these candles for thousands of years as witness to the one who makes daily miracles possible.


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[i]Taylor Swift and the Story of Chanukah, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, Shabbat Sermon, (December 10, 2018 Blog Posting)