Hanukkah Kavannot - 5771
8 nights 5771
About 2000 years ago a Rabbi named Rava asked a number of defining questions by which a person can determine if his time on earth was well spent. As we light the candles each night of Hanukkah this year, let's sit with each question for a few minutes, and then dedicate (or rededicate) ourselves to a life of possibility and purpose.
night 1: everyday holiness
Who are you? Not who are you on Yom Kippur, in the 11th hour, dressed in white, stomach growling, when it's impossible to ignore your purest self... but who are you in the day to day? Who are you, not under the huppah, but working through logistics with your mother a few days before? Who are you, not when everyone's watching, but when nobody's watching? When you can get away with it.
Hanukkah is a celebration of two great miracles- the extraordinary military victory of the small dedicated band of Maccabees over the mighty oppressive force of the Greek-Syrians, and the stubborn persistence of light even in the midst of darkness and desecration.
But the way to judge a life well lived, according to Rava, is whether we did business faithfully. Not how we bear the miraculous moments- the moments of victory and tragedy- but if we are honest and fair in our day to day dealings. Why? Because how we treat others in the most mundane moments actually defines who we are as human beings. To be a mensch in the spotlight but a bull-dog behind the scenes won't cut it. The Hebrew for business is maseh u'matan - literally the take and give of life. The everyday. How are we living it?
Tonight let's think for a moment not only about the courage and heroism of Mattitiahu, but also about how he spoke with his wife. And if he paid his housekeeper a living wage or spoke gruffly with his kids' Hebrew tutors. In the spirit of Hanukkah, let's dedicate ourselves tonight to being awake not only to the great miracles but also to the smallest gestures - the ones that can be the most definitional in life.
Hag Urim Sameah -- A Hanukkah filled with light & miracles.
Rabbi Sharon Brous
night 2: sacred time
My brother once worked with a man who walked out of his office in the midst of heated negotiations over a $100 million deal because he had promised his kids he’d take them rock climbing that afternoon. He now says the money left on that table was the best investment of his life.
The Books of Maccabees tell of the heroism Eleazar, Hannah and her seven sons, and others who suffered under the Greek-Syrians for their unwillingness to publicly undermine their core values and commitments. And yet, even while we celebrate their heroism, many of us undermine our own core commitments on a daily basis by prioritizing everything else over them. Someone should be able to look at our weekly schedules and see a clear and proportional articulation of our core values. Yet time with family and friends, time for volunteering, spiritual practice, civic engagement, learning – these are usually the only flexible spots in our schedule, and therefore the first to go when more urgent needs arise.
The second question Rava says we’ll be asked to judge if we lived life fully: kavata itim la’torah – did you set aside time for Torah? Read broadly: did you make time for what matters most? As we light tonight, let’s think of the commitments we’d defend most fiercely – and then start fighting for them now, even without the Greek-Syrian army at our door. Identify one person or practice that matters deeply but lives on the backburner. Leave work early on Wednesdays to pick your kid up from school. Make a date night. Carve out time to read on Shabbat. Sign up to serve food once a month. Because one thing is clear: if we don’t make sacred space for what’s most important, we’ll probably never get to it.
night 3: fire, courage and heroism in Israel
We enter Shabbat on this third night of Hanukkah, hearts heavy with the awareness that wildfires raging through Northern Israel have yet to be contained. Firefighters are calling this one of Israel’s most severe natural disasters. Most tragically, those who have died are precisely the people who were fighting to save others’ lives: 40 guards who were working to evacuate prisoners were killed in the early hours of the fire, and two firefighters and a 16 year old boy died as they ran to assist rescue teams. Tens of thousands of residents have been evacuated from their homes and many are being treated with severe burns and smoke inhalation. And of course there has been untold damage to the Carmel Forest and its surroundings.
Before you light tonight, please make a contribution to provide emergency relief for victims and their families and respond to other immediate needs associated with this disaster. All earmarked contributions to the Federation will go directly to the victims and their families.
And as Israel’s President Shimon Peres said, please take a moment in the spirit of Hanukkah to recognize and honor the courage and heroism of those whose were killed and those who continue to brave the elements to save others’ lives.
night 4: the real legacy
According to Rava, one of the questions we are asked to determine if we lived a full and meaningful life is if we engaged in the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply. Certainly having children is one way to try to build a legacy - insofar as our children will hopefully carry our core commitments into the next generation. It was the presence of his sons that first gave Mattitiahu the courage to refuse to sacrifice on the pagan altar. "Even if everyone under the king's rule were to listen to his order to betray the religion of their fathers," we read in the first book or Maccabees, "my sons and I will forever follow the covenant of our fathers."
But this question - asakta b'firia u'rivia -- is about much more than having children. Hanukkah reminds us of the power of an idea to change the world. It was the stubborn insistence that all people should live free of oppression and persecution, free to practice and study and eat according to their conscience, that led Mattitiahu to resist the oppressive force of the Greek-Syrians. Those same ideas have driven social movements for the past 2000 years, given strength to the weak, comfort and courage to the oppressed. This was surely one of his greatest contributions.
Rava is really asking: you have lived for this many years. What have you brought to the world? Did you try to make a mark? It doesn't have to be the mark of a revolution, or even a social movement. It could be a book. An idea. A piece of art. A song. A truly enduring love. Tonight, let's light thinking of the gifts and blessings that will be our great contribution.
night 5: great expectations
There is a certain kind of hutzpah built into the Jewish consciousness. It’s not only about having no shame asking people how much money they make or refusing to take your seat when the El Al flight attendant asks you to. It’s also a stubborn refusal to believe that the world must be as the world is. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev asks why Hanukkah is considered the holiday of miracles, rather than Passover, when the military victory of the Maccabees and even the miracle of the lights in no way compare to the grandness of the parting of the Red Sea. Why? Because the miracle of Hanukkah is that we don’t wait for God to make miracles happen for us, we take responsibility and act to make manifest our dreams for the world. In that sense, the real miracle of Hanukkah is human beings becoming agents of the Divine in the world. Hanukkah is about fighting to turn our dreams into reality.
Rava says that the fourth question we are asked to determine if our lives were lived fully and meaningfully is tzipita l’yishua – did you expect redemption? In other words, did you live mired in reality, or did you believe that it is always possible for things to be better than they are? Did you respond to life with despair or hope? The Jewish consciousness is built on the foundation that each of us is obligated to respond to life’s inadequacies with hope – with the knowledge that everything can be different than it is. Tonight, as we light, let’s affirm the central element of our humanness -- the ability to dream and the hutzpah to expect that our dreams will, eventually, become real.
6th night: revealed and concealed
I officiated at a beautiful wedding a couple of nights ago. As the ceremony started, we lit the Hanukkiah under the huppah and I was reminded of the words R. Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, who taught that there are two aspects to everything: the revealed and the concealed. What we see when we look at the burning candles is beautiful flames, each one with the power to light up an entire room. But beneath the surface is the depth of meaning of the light – the presence and persistence of miracles, the blessing of abundance even in times of scarcity, the power of hope and possibility. In relationships the revealed is the sound of your beloved’s voice, the smell of her hair, the touch of his skin. But these aspects of a person are limited and real love is rooted not only in what we can see and touch, but also in what is concealed – the essence of a person, the part of her that is not obvious to rest of world because it lives deep beneath the surface. The challenge in relationships that start with an attraction to the revealed, is to remember to spend the rest of our lives seeking what is concealed. Because a Hanukkiah without its concealed meaning is just a bunch of candles.
The fifth question we are asked on the Day of Judgment is pilpalta b’hokhma -- did you dig deeply and perpetually in the quest for wisdom? Did you allow yourself to be satisfied with the revealed, or did you search for the concealed? Did you ever meet a person who at first did not compel you, but years later you recognized his eyes as the most beautiful in the world, his smile your greatest source of hope? In other words: did you believe that life was more than what appears at the surface? Did you believe that you could find beauty and depth in everyone? Did you take the time and make the effort to go beneath the surface and see what you could learn? As you light tonight, open your heart and go deeper. Search. Seek. Question and learn – about something or someone else, and about yourself.
7th night: learn your lesson
Each night as we light we say a blessing thanking God for making miracles happen for our ancestors (bayamim ha-heim) and for us (u’bazman hazeh). This message -- maybe the most profound of the season -- is what has inspired Jews for thousands of years, sometimes under persecution and at threat of death, to light the hanukkiah and recite blessings. It’s what drove prisoners in Auschwitz and Treblinka to use margarine and potato rations and unravel threads from their clothing to secretly light on Hanukkah. The miracles that happened in the time of the Maccabees – the light that found its way to the darkest corners and the triumph of the weak over the strong, the just over the unjust – were not one time events. What happened to them might also happen to us. Maybe even today.
The sixth question we’re asked in order to determine if we lived a full and meaningful life is hevanta davar mitokh davar – were you open to learning one thing from another? Was your heart open to the lessons of the past so that you could better understand what is possible for you today? I usually read this as a charge to learn from our mistakes – to stop ourselves from falling into the same traps and enacting the same scripts again and again. But during Hanukkah the inverse is also true: did you let yourself draw strength from the miracles you have experienced and the gifts you have received? Did you remember, even in the bleakest moments, that light and healing and love are possible, because it happened to you before – bayamim haheim – and therefore can happen again now – u’vazman hazeh?
There is a special blessing that’s supposed to be recited when we come across a place where a miracle has occurred -- maybe to remind us that miracles actually happen, maybe to ensure that the reverberations of the miracle continue to be felt, even long after the event has passed. Tonight, let the act of lighting serve as a testament to ultimate possibility. Remember a miraculous moment – either from our collective history or your own -- and learn from the past. Remind your heart that it’s possible for it to happen again.
8th night: making it real
Six questions to determine if we lived a full and meaningful life:
Did you make life's in-between moments holy?
Did you carve out time for what is most important?
Did you try to contribute something new to the world?
Did you fight to realize your dreams?
Did you dig deeply for hidden meaning?
Did you remember, even in the pain, that love is possible?
And at the end of this list, Rava asks one more: did you live with yirat hashem, with humility, with an awareness in your kishkas that it's not, in the end, all about you?
Perhaps the most profound expression of humility is giving tzedakah -- one of the finest ways to bring meaning and purpose into our lives. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the final night of Hanukkah by thinking about gift giving as an expression of our core values and a commitment to live a more meaningful and purposeful life. Tonight, contribute to IKAR’s end-of-year Isaiah Fund in honor of someone you love. A few generous IKARites have pooled their resources to contribute $20,000 to our Isaiah Fund if we step up and match their gift by December 31. The great thing about a match for the ISAIAH FUND, of course, is that not only will your gift be matched, but it will then inspire our people to turn our best intentions into concrete actions – to get out and work for justice and healing in the world - since we can redeem money from the Isaiah Fund only when IKAR members go out and do good.
Our objective is to start 2011 with $40,000 in our Isaiah Fund - and we’re asking for contributions of $180, but we’ll happily take (and match) your $1800 or whatever you can give this year. I hope that you’ll help us reach this ambitious goal, so that we can continue to bring light and inspiration into the world.
To learn more about the Isaiah Initiative, check out www.ikar-la.org.
May the light of Hanukkah this year bring not only greater wakefulness and deeper personal meaning, but also reinvigorate us in the pursuit of justice, dignity and peace for all people.