Denver Thanksgiving Interfaith Service
November 28, 2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO.
Here’s an old story:
A mother asked her son: “Johnny, what did you learn today in Religious School?”
Johnny:“I learned how, when the Israelites came to the shores of the Sea of Reeds they saw that Pharaoh’s army was closing in on them. So Moses radioed for reinforcements and God sent a fleet of Drones who attacked the Egyptian army. That gave the Israelites time to build a pontoon bridge and they crossed the Sea of Reeds. As soon as they crossed the sea, the Egyptians followed after them, so Moses and the Israelites blew up the bridge and the Egyptians sank to the bottom.”
Johnny’s mom looked at her son and asked: “Johnny, is that REALLY what they taught you?”
“Well, not, exactly, but if I told you what they really taught me, you’d never believe it!”
The Story of Chanukah is about a miracle – most of us know about it: It’s the story of how the oil in the Temple that was supposed to be enough to burn for one day, lasted for eight days. Truth be told, it’s not the most impressive of miracles. I mean, think about it:
· Compared to the parting of the red sea
· Compared changing water into wine (in the Christian Bible)
· Compared to splitting the moon in two (in the Koran)
It's pretty meek......
And yet – the story of the miracle of the oil is an essential element of the Chanukah story. I’ll come back to that in a bit, but first, this morning we have come together to acknowledge and celebrate a remarkable and rare event – the convergence of the quintessentially American Holiday of Thanksgiving and the Jewish Festival of Hanukah. The last time the two holidays fell on the same date was in 1888. The next time won’t be for another 79,000 years.
Now I could take the time to explain how the peculiarities of the Jewish and Gregorian Calendars work and why this anomaly has occurred on this year in particular – but I don’t want to bore you. And besides, you can always Google it on your own time – so I won’t - except to say: This is it, my friends. We will never see it again. Live it up!
Actually –if we look at the historical record found in the book of Maccabees, there is another reason that we celebrate the festival of Chanukah for 8 days besides the story of the oil. The Maccabees were a small band of fighters from the ancient city of Modin (a city that today has been reborn as a thriving bedroom community in Israel equidistant between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.) These brave fighters who, under the leadership of Judah - son of Mattithias, defeated the Hellenized Assyrians in 160 BCE . They marched into Jerusalem and when they came into holy the Temple they found it desecrated by Pagan statues and Greek gods. They rededicated the Temple and since it had been several years since anyone was able to offer sacrifices, they decided to celebrate the 8 day festival of Sukkot – or Tabernacles –in the Winter month of Kislev. Sukkot was the grandest and most joyous of the festivals. So Hanukah is really sukkot in winter.
The story of the oil that lasted 8 days came later – much later – in Jewish history.
Now let’s turn to Thanksgiving. When the Pilgrims came to America they saw themselves as the “New Israelites” - escaping from religious persecution in England. For the Pilgrims, England was their Egypt, and Plymouth Rock was the first step into their new Promised Land. They survived the winter, planted and harvested their first crops and gave thanks for the bounty given to them by God. In creating the holiday of Thanksgiving, like the Maccabees 2000 years earlier, the Pilgrims looked into the Bible and adapted the harvest festival of Sukkot as a time for giving thanks to God.
So, setting the calendar aside for a moment, the combination of these two festivals isn’t that unusual after all. Both have their roots in Biblical tradition. Both have important Universal messages that are essential for all of us to hear – and it’s these messages that I want to focus on this morning.
There’s a story from Jewish tradition that comes from the legendary community of Chelm. Now, for those of you who don’t know about Chelm – let me explain. Chelm is no ordinary city. The Chelmites, we are told, were clueless, not too bright and absolutely unaware of the world around them. They had their own peculiar kind of logic – that made perfect sense to them – but to everyone else, they were a mystery. Here is a story from the Wise Men of Chelm:
A certain Wise Man of Chelm journeyed to the city of Minsk and obtained lodging at a local inn. Seeing a stranger, the innkeeper tried to entertain him. He put the following riddle to the Chelmite: "Who is it that is my father's son, yet he is not my brother?"The Chelmite racked his brain for the answer, but in vain.
"I Give up!" he said finally. "Now tell me, who is it?"
"Why it’s me!" cried out the innkeeper triumphantly!
The Sage of Chelm was amazed by the cleverness of the riddle, and when he returned home, he lost no time in assembling all of the other Wise Men.
"My masters," he began gravely, stroking his long beard. I am going to ask you a riddle and see if you can answer it: Who is it that is my father's son, yet he's not my brother?"
The Sages of Chelm were greatly perplexed. They thought and thought and finally said:
"We Give up. Tell us, Who is it?"
"He is the innkeeper of Minsk!" cried the sage, triumphantly!
I love that story. We laugh at the foolishness of the Chelmite, but the truth is, oftentimes we are just like our wise man: we fail to see that it is us – as individuals and as a community - who are the central players in the riddles and the problems that life poses to us all.
In just a few hours, we will gather around our tables with Friends and family and give thanks for the bounty that God has bestowed upon us. Truly we are blessed. Most of us here this evening have food on our tables and clothing on our backs. We have loved ones who share our lives and homes that provide us with shelter. Most of us have meaningful work which helps us to support ourselves and our families. Giving thanks to God for all the good that has been bestowed upon us makes sense at this holiday season. But is it enough? Can we, as people of faith, be satisfied merely with thanking God for our lot in life, or is there more that we must do?
On Thanksgiving, we rejoice in our blessings and bounty. But if all that we do is rejoiceand give thanks – we truly have missed an important truth: The message that Thanksgiving must be combined with reaching out beyond ourselves if it is to have any meaning whatsoever.
The society in which we live - with all its goodness, has a dark side as well. It’s very easy, in our culture of consumption, to simultaneously give thanks for what we have, and turn our backs to those around us who, for whatever reasons, do not or cannot share in our bounty. And this is compounded by the fact that there is a subtle – and sometimes notso subtle message we receive when we look at those less fortunate than ourselves and find ourselves slipping into the cadence of condemnation that fills our airwaves, our inboxes and our subconscious.
Especially at this point in our history – this time of economic and political instability- when so many of our friends, neighbors, fellow congregants and family are facing job and food insecurity, health care confusion, and a host of other ills brought about by our modern world.
Especially at this difficult time when, too many people, instead of coming together to find ways to reach out and help – are closing ranks; casting aspersions; looking for scapegoats; shaming and blaming the most vulnerable elements of society.
We live in a time of extreme polarization.
We live in a world and a nation where enormous amounts of wealth and power lie in the hands of a tiny fraction of the population. The inequities and imbalances within our society are so vast that they hearken back to an earlier and darker time in world history.
As people of faith we are both commanded and compelled to give thanks for the blessings and work to change the injustice in our society. This is our prophetic heritage. The great teacher and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote 50 years ago of what he called the “theology of common deed.” This means that
“….. God is concerned with everydayness, with the (seeming) trivialities of life...and that the outcry of the poor is an outcry of pain in which the sickness of our total society comes to expression... Supersonic planes and substandard housing, esoteric science and vulgar ethics; an elite of highly specialized experts and a mass of illiterate and unprepared laborers...”
Religion becomes a mockery, he reminds us, if we remain callous to these everyday ironies and inequities with which we are confronted.
My friends, our prayers of thanksgiving cannot be fully realized if we are only giving thanks for what we have- and not working to make a change. If we cannot see ourselves in the suffering of others, then we cannot truly give thanks.
Like our Wise Man of Chelm – we must see that is each of us who is required to take our place in helping to solve the riddle of life.
This morning we have come together to give thanks. Today we come together to acknowledge that there is work that is yet to be done. But we also are here to acknowledge that we need help – God’s help – in finding the paths, the prayers and the strength to fill the voids that we see around us.
So now, let’s get back to the story of the oil that lasted 8 days. As I said at the beginning of my words, it’s not clear whether or not this story is historically verifiable. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. There’s one aspect of this narrative that I find compelling. Think about it: nobody was expecting a miracle when the lamps were lit in the Temple. They expected the oil to burn until it was depleted. But it kept on burning. It took a while before the Maccabees and the priests in the Temple realized that something new and unusual was happening – right before their eyes. They had to watch that flame. They had to open up their eyes and see it burning and burning. No, it wasn’t a huge miracle. It took time to unfold in front of them. But when it did, they knew that they were in the presence of something remarkable.
Right now, in this sanctuary filled to the brim with pilgrims from many different traditions, we too could be witnessing something wondrous happening. Not only because of the uniqueness of the confluence of holidays – but because of the holiness and the potential within all of us who are here. Maybe this morning, we can light a flame within ourselves. Maybe we can make a pledge – to give of ourselves to make our congregations, our communities, our cities, our nation –our world – just a little bit better. Then we can truly celebrate our festival of Thanksgiving.
 Adapted from "The White Man on Trial," published in a collection of Heschel's essays, The Insecurity of Freedom[Farrar Straus, 1996; paper, Schocken, 1972], pp. 101-102