Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

Happy Holidays

December 2016

Happy holidays appears in the plural because this year the religious celebrations of Christmas & Hanukkah fall at the same time, the 1st Hanukkah candle coinciding exactly with Christmas Eve. With few exceptions, most residents of the Mohawk Valley will be observing a religious holiday. Both of these holidays, each in its own fashion, commemorate a victory: a victory of the spirit over the physical, a victory of salvation over despair, a military victory. Both of these holidays, each in its own fashion, are a celebration of freedom: freedom of the spirit to rise above the physical, freedom from the finality of death, national & religious freedom. The deep theological & religious significance of both celebrations, though sometimes overshadowed by the mirth & joy of the season, is never very far away.

In our day, Hanukah is not merely an anniversary of a successful military uprising; it is far more. The religious intolerance inflicted by the state upon the Jews nearly 2,200 years ago threatened to destroy the very fabric of Jewish life. The motive for this action did not appear to be land or riches, but the systematic elimination of an entire culture. The subsequent rebellion was not merely a reaction against royal policy but a philosophical stand in favor of a culture & a way of life over life itself. The Jewish partisans were willing to sacrifice their being to preserve their soul &, considering the disproportion in size, strength, & ability of the two armies, those partisans easily could have become nothing more than a band of zealous martyrs who made no lasting impression on history whatsoever. Thus, Hanukah, the Hebrew word for dedication, stands not only for the re-dedication of the Holy Temple, but for the dedication of committed individuals, then & now, to the preservation of a way of life they hold dear. Jews are certainly not the only people to understand this commitment; a similar sentiment is found at the end of the Declaration of Independence: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes & our sacred honor."

That same firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence is, in no small measure, the real significance of Hanukah. The ancient rabbis, ever willing to recognize the Divine hand in the events of history, assigned the true victory not to the success of the rebellion but to the cleansing & re-dedication of the Holy Temple & the resumption of the Divine service therein. The ancient rabbinic literature does not discuss Hanukah to any significant degree &, when Hanukah is mentioned, the main concern is God's miracles & not military victories. Thus, Hanukah takes its rightful place in the aggregation of Jewish holidays as a celebration of God's beneficence & goodness & not merely as an anniversary of historical events.

The celebration of Hanukah does not appear in the canonized Hebrew scriptures. It is, therefore, the first post-Biblical Jewish holiday. Unlike many of the Biblical festivals, for which there are many laws & rituals, Hanukah is characterized by only one principal formality, the lighting of Hanukah candles to publicize the miracle of the Temple's re-dedication. Over the centuries, the customs of giving gifts & decorating one's dwelling have attached themselves to the celebration of Hanukah. Perhaps borrowed from other cultures, these practices do contribute to the warmth & joy felt by all in the height of the winter season, particularly here in the United States, particularly at this chilly time of year in the Mohawk River Valley.

Today, Hanukah also serves the Jew as a bulwark against assimilation & loss of identity. For many, the lighting of the Hanukah candles serves to remind the Jew of, & strengthen the Jew in, his or her ties to the Jewish people, Jewish traditions, & the land of Israel. The ancient Jewish celebration of religious pluralism has hardly lost its meaning in modern times. On each night of Hanukah the menorah, or candelabra, is placed prominently in a window or doorway of the house in order to publicize the miracles of God to all who pass by. Blessings are offered in thanksgiving for these miracles & the opportunity to light the candles. No Jewish ritual is ever fulfilled without thanking God beforehand for the opportunity to perform the ritual act. Upon lighting the candles, the Jew breaks into song, chanting a Hebrew hymn to God stating that "these lamps we kindle on account of the miracles, on account of the wonders, on account of the redemptions, & on account of the battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days at this time."

Those ancient miracles have not ceased. God continues to perform miracles & wonders for the Jewish people. God has performed, & will continue to perform, miracles & wonders for other people & other cultures as well. That is why there are so many celebrations - because all of us have much to celebrate. At this time of the year, when joy & gladness are so rampant & seem to pervade everything, I & my family would like to extend our heartfelt wishes to all who celebrate at this season for a joyous, satisfying, & truly blessed observance, no matter what holiday you may be observing. May these celebrations usher in for us all a time of peace & contentment.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace and blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman