As we celebrate Chanukah 5771, we also begin to wind up the first decade of the 21st century, and what a decade it has been. America went to war and remains at war to this day. Israel and the Palestinians are still unable to make peace. The economy, both at home and in most of the developed world, is shaky, with most of us still wondering exactly how close we came to another Great Depression, and some still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
For American Jews, the last decade has seen a wild proliferation of Jewish institutions and initiatives, but it’s not clear if we will sustain them or if we, like most Americans, simply create them and dispose of them as we keep searching for the “next big thing.”
Over that past 10 years, lines have hardened in organized Jewish life even as those very lines have loosened in the lives of most Jews, creating a spiral of frustration and fear about the Jewish future on part of the first group.
It feels that with every passing day of the last decade, our personal lives, like a dreidel, spun faster and faster. That’s the world of Chanukah 5771, one that needs Chanukah and the opportunity it provides — to remember, reconnect, and renew.
Our world and our lives often feel like those spinning dreidels, and on Chanukah we remember that we have it within us to play the game of life as much as the game plays us. We reconnect to the source of that ability, even through the foods we eat.
The greasy latkes and doughnuts associated with the holiday recall the oil that burned longer and brighter in the newly rededicated Temple menorah than anyone expected it would or could. When we eat those latkes and doughnuts, we not only remember that story but also become vessels of the oil that we recall. And even the strictest cardiologist would be OK with that for eight days a year.
As we eat, we remind ourselves that it is within us to move ourselves and our world forward into the next decade in wonderful new ways, ways that will shine more brightly and with greater durability than we often allow ourselves to imagine. Just like the little cruse of oil found in the Temple, we need to see ourselves and each other as having more potential and power than we often remember.
When Franz Rosenzweig spoke at the opening of the Lehrhaus in 1920, he spoke of the birth of a new Jewish learning, one in which we would discover and create new sacred texts that would be both the product of our lives and in turn, enrich our lives. He recognized that the wisdom of a people is found not only in its holy books, but in the books of people’s lives which would become holy — perhaps even in its recipe books, which carry the tastes and traditions of our families, both immediate and global.
While I don’t know what Rosenzweig ate on Chanukah, I am quite certain that he would have appreciated that latkes and doughnuts are not just about the past, that they are also pointers toward our ability to renew ourselves, each other, and the world. Making and eating them are not simply some quaint traditions, but practices that help us enter a new decade of Jewish and American life by reminding us that we have it within us to do so.
As you indulge in these holiday treats, pass the napkins and also take a moment to consider your own responses to the following questions, either all at once, or one for each delicious night of the holiday.
1. Where in your life could you use a little more
light, enlightenment or energy?
2. Where have you found what you needed in the past and what made it work for you?
3. Where, what or to whom could you look now to find what you need?
4. How could you tap into the energy within yourself
and others more effectively?
5. To whose life could you contribute a little more light, enlightenment or energy?
6. When have you felt connected to your own
ability to direct your own life and contribute to the
lives of others?
7. What gift lies within you that you would like to use more fully or share more with others?
8.What goal will you pursue between this
Chanukah and the next one, trusting that the
pursuit itself will bring rewards not yet even
Having lived through a decade at least as challenging as our own, the Maccabees and all those who stood with them answered these kinds of questions and made miracles happen.
In answering these questions for ourselves, we will rediscover who we really are and what capacity we truly possess, to renew ourselves, our people and the fast-turning world in which we live.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the author of You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.