What is Holy? A Hanukkah Message
Often we associate holiness with old men pouring over ancient texts or pious people praying regularly. Kedushah (holiness) is a foreign concept to so many of us.
There is a prayer that is traditionally recited when Hanukkah candles are lit: ”these lights are holy, and we are not allowed to use them, only to look at them ”. This prayer alludes to a somewhat esoteric point of Jewish law. According to the halakha, the Hanukkah lights may not be used for any secular purpose. For example, we are forbidden to read by their light. The candles are meant to inspire us. They remind us of the light of religious freedom brought into the world by the ancient
Maccabees. They are to be admired but not used. Indeed, the shammash (the extra candle lit each night) has its origin in the legal fiction that if we do use the light generated from the menorah, it is not the
Hanukkah lights we are reading by, but the extra shammash light.
In this obscure halakha, we can find a meaning of holiness we can all relate to. We find true holiness in ideas that inspire us, or in acts of compassion that move us. Things that we use or manipulate are not
In a truly holy relationship, our spouse, our child, or our parents are people we inspire or are inspired by, not people we use.
When we admire nature as a gift from the almighty rather than a series of objects we can gain benefit from, our relationship with nature becomes holy. And when we relate to others in such a way as to give, rather than manipulate and use, we create sparks of holiness.
Hanukkah reminds us that our relationship with God should be holy. We love God and follow God’s
mitzvot not only for the promised rewards, but also to bring holiness into our lives.
The Hanukkah lights are holy because they cannot be used.
One more lesson of Hanukkah lights and holiness.
So many religions associate candles with holiness.
Perhaps it is because one candle can light so many others and it’s flame is never diminished. If you are blessed and have a child for example, you pour so much love into that child you might think you have exhausted your supply. You’ve reached empty. Then you are blessed with another tiny miracle and your supply is quickly replenished . During this year of COVID, the Hanukkah lights have a new message. They represent the many doctors and nurses and essential workers and so many others who served us as our “shammash” , taking great risks and making great sacrifices to do so. Their acts were holy and may they continue to shed lights for all of us.
Rabbi Jacob Rosner
WHO WRITES THE BOOK OF LIFE
In our prayers recited during this holy season, we are told of a book: sometimes
referred to as a Book of Life, sometimes as a book of Memories. “on Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die”
Does this mean that my life is pre-ordained? Do I have no choices to make?
We assume it is God who is writing this “Book of Life”, but a closer look shows us that when God opens our “Book of Memories”, “the signature of each of us is attached”.
We write our own book of life. It is up to us to find meaning in these sacred hours we spend at prayer. It is the job of each of us to peruse the book of life we wrote during this past year, and determine where we need to grow. Perhaps, if we want to extend the metaphor, we should see ourselves as editors. We open our book, we read our chapters and we make changes. Some of the chapters are entitled “family” or “community” or “Judaism” or “charity”. On these Holy days we ask ourselves, “What did we write in those chapters?” Did we give of ourselves as much as we should have? Did we live a life of mitzvah? Did we connect with God? Did we contribute to our community? Were we loving and giving to our children and grandchildren, to our spouses?”
And if we find ourselves lacking, as we all sometimes are, these Holy days are a time to write the outlines for the chapters we will write in the year to come. But it is not only individuals who write books of life and memories. Nations write books of life. Societies make memorable decisions involving life and death.
And we need time to edit these books as well. Last year those of us willing and able, met during these festivals with our families in our familiar seats perhaps sitting with our friends, sharing family stories. This year services will be different, and we will open a national book of suffering. More than any other
country, our nation has been struck by COVID-19. Many of us have friends who have been sick or
perhaps passed on from the virus. I am sure every one of us has been impacted in one way or another. Most of us have been limited in our travel, our work, or our family connections
How do we as a society view our national book of life during this past year? Why is the richest nation in the world the nation stricken the hardest by the pandemic? What can we edit? What can we change?
There are answers that can bring us back to the blessings we seek during this season. Open the books of science! Open the books of medicine. Consider the needs of your fellow human beings. Wear a mask in public places. Follow the rules of social distancing! Prioritize health over wealth!
Remember it is WE who write the book of life
Rabbi Jacob Rosner
The following is a summary of a sermon I delivered Saturday, June 13th.
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe regarding the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman he had married.”
In their commentaries, the rabbis associate their sin of gossip with the punishment meted out to Miriam who was stricken with “snow white scales” (some sort of skin disease often mistranslated as leprosy).
In interpreting Torah, we often seek present day meanings in ancient texts/stories. I can only
imagine Aaron coming up to Miriam during the wedding, a drink in his hand, saying “Ess past nit” (it’s not right!)
Perhaps it was subliminal. Perhaps it was overt, but what he was saying was, “She’s not one of ours!” “She’s a different race.” “She doesn’t fit.” “Look at the color of her ebony skin.”
Our sages teach us that God punishes measure for measure. “You Miriam who think your whiteness makes you special!!! You would want to judge people based on the color of their skin!! When you don’t recognize the image of God in every human being, when your whiteness becomes a weapon of privilege, I will turn that very whiteness into a disease of ugly snow white scales”’
And when we read this section of Torah, we are reminded to defend the Cushite men and
women in our world. We are reminded to defend them from lashon hara…. Or racist language that leads to violence.
Aaron and Miriam were figures of authority. And when we read this section we are reminded to protect the powerless from those who wield white power. Either the power of office or the
power of the Billy club and gun.
Because Cushite lives matter. (Yes, I know Miriam was Semitic and therefore not really white …I’m basing MY midrash on the Miriam of the Cecil B. DeMille movie)
Rabbi Jacob Rosner