School News: Gift Giving at Chanukah
People always ask: what do you think about gift-giving on Chanukah? My answer is: whatever keeps you Jewish! When we receive gifts, it should only make us want to be more generous. As an American and as a Jew, generosity is a value that I believe we should cultivate. Despite the current food shortages at local area food pantries and the lack of funds at charities (either because giving is down or because of recent scandals), Americans remain among the most giving of citizens. Jewish Americans not only have to “ride on the wave of giving;” we have an obligation to give tzedakah, from the get go.
The good feelings that gifts bring to our children, now at Chanukah, at Purim and at Passover for the afikomen, make them aware of how important it is to give new toys during toy drives. The sweets we give them let them learn that children and families deserve more than the staples, when they receive groceries as help. A child, responding to the call to bring non-perishable food items to school for our middle schoolers’ food drive, asked me if jelly beans were OK to bring along with a can of beans – “they are kosher, too!”
We say that the Maccabees fought for religious freedom, and we must remember that their fight was a response to the first systematic, anti-semitic governmental decrees introduced into the (then) free world. No other people with their own gods were singled out as foreign or subversive by the Greko-Syrian rulers, the Seleucids. Even as they assimilated other peoples and let them worship in their own styles, the Jews were made to give up: kosher eating, worshipping one G-d, keeping Shabbat, studying Torah and performing brit milah, having a bris. The entire Jewish spiritual system and system for making joyous lives was outlawed. The punishment for breaking the law: death.
The miracle, first and foremost, was that a small band of dedicated leaders fought for our rights to live our lives Jewishly and won! With G-d’s help, they helped create a society in which Jews could live Jewishly AND be part of the larger culture. The continuation of the miracle is that Jews remained Jewish even while they took on Hellenistic culture, after the Maccabean Revolution. The history of the “organized” Jewish community from that point on is wild; friendships and alliances among Jews and the non-Jewish leaders led to a prosperus Palistinea (the Roman name for the land of Israel in that time). Herod financed the most beautiful Temple in Jerusalem, and the Rabbis, at the time a socio-political group, lived their lives according to their understandings of the Torah, informed by worldly wisdom. Not until the shifting political tides two generations later, for the most part, with the onset of Roman aggression and finally the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem did Jews have to stand up strong, as a group, and fight systematic religious persecution.
Still, the miracle of the oil speaks to our insistence that we will make the light dispel the darkness. We are awed at the eight days it burned, yet again, we must understand the miracle. What did it take to light that wick? Who had the courage to stake out the ground in the Temple and say that we will make more, for days and years and generations to come? The Maccabees gave us the gift of leadership. After the celebration at the Temple, they went home and ate kosher, kept Shabbat, studied Torah and had a bris, when new babies were born.
The question is: are we living Jewishly and are we living generously? In America, we are free to do that. As Jews, we are obligated to be the ones to light the lights and make more oil, for when the 8 days worth is finished.
Happy Chanukah!! Rabbi Bolton