Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On Being Prepared

Be Prepared! – A Sermon for Parshat Mikeitz –
December 3, 2010 – 3rd Candle of Chanukkah
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Tonight, we celebrate the Shabbat that falls during Chanukkah. These 2 celebrations jammed together actually create a couple of conflicts for us, as we celebrate as the Solel mishpachah this evening. Shabbat, in our congregational practice, is a Friday night thing. We come together, recreate our extended communal family, and pray together, supporting each other in good times and bad. As part of that, we have included the traditional rituals of the Shabbat table in our communal celebration – the lighting of Shabbat candles, the qiddish over the wine, the offering of blessings, and the breaking of the challah bread together. According to the historians, Reform congregations started to add these home rituals when it became clear that the vast majority of homes no longer regularly practiced them.

But then, there is Chanukkah. One of the two most celebrated Jewish holidays in modern practice (the other is Passover). A much bigger deal in our era than it ever was before in Jewish history. The reasons for both of these phenomena seem clear. The celebration of Passover and Chanukkah are both centered in the home, not the sanctuary, and both revolve primarily around the children, making them both very attractive for celebration. The timing of Chanukkah, even this year, when it is about as far away from that other holiday as possible, is assuredly the reason for its growth in significance – it allows us to have our own celebration during the “Christmas season.” This, even though the truth is that there are only 3 elements that the two seasonal holidays share – the season, the giving of gifts, and the focus on celebration in the home with the kids and family. And, by the way, a good case can be made that there is a hugely artificial basis for all THREE commonalities!

But I do NOT want to preach about the December dilemma, or even about the Chanukkah story tonight. My message for this evening CAN be found in the Chanukkah story, if one looks closely enough. But it comes from the Torah portion, Mikeitz, which is ALMOST always the portion read during Chanukkah. However, to fully get the message, a quick synopsis of Chanukkah is necessary.

Many of you know that when it comes to Chanukkah, I take what can only be described as a “conspiracy theorist” point of view. Chanukkah was a holiday celebrating the Maccabees great victory – surviving against ridiculous odds against the Syrian-Greeks, who were hell-bent on wiping out Judaism, if not Jews. It was assuredly instituted by the Hasmoneans, the descendants and close followers of the Maccabees, who prevailed in the long drawn out civil war for the soul of the Jewish community that began BEFORE Antiochus, and did not end until almost 20 years AFTER the Temple was rededicated.

The Hasmoneans turned out, over the course of their almost 80 years in power, to be something other than the religious zealots we were mostly taught to view them as in our own youth. “Let all who are zealous for God follow me,” the rallying cry of Judah Maccabee during the fighting against Antiochus, was replaced with a clear willingness to assimilate both Greek and Roman trappings in subsequent generations. Indeed, so successful were the Hasmoneans, that MANY non-Jews were drawn to Judea and Judaism in their time. So much so, that the Chasidim, the most pious followers of the Hasmoneans, felt compelled to remove their support from their ruling party, for fear that the Jewishness of Judea was being compromised by this influx of outsiders.

That departure had two simultaneous effects. It weakened the Hasmonean rule enough to justify direct intervention by the Romans, a reality which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple. And when the Temple was destroyed, the Pharisees (the word means “Outsiders” in Hebrew) were there to take charge and keep things Jewish, albeit in a VERY different form. The Pharisees, no longer the outsiders, changed their name to the Rabbis, and re-formed Judaism for the next 2000 years. They were also, largely or wholely, quite likely the same group that used to be known as Chasidim when they supported the Hasmoneans!

Once in control, the Rabbis went about establishing their new vision of Judaism – where prayer from the heart offered in public, but locally, replaced physical sacrificial offerings at the central shrine in Jerusalem; where Torah was read publicly as part of the worship; and where the kitchen table became the miqdash m’at – the small sanctuary at which the ritual purity connected to the sacrifices was maintained through kashrut and the other traditions that evolved. They redid the festival calendar, adding some items, strengthening others, and removing still others. And, having been almost wiped out twice in 65 years by the Romans, they adopted a strong pacifist approach, in an effort to survive.

Chief among the changes to the calendar made by the Rabbis was the removal of almost all the Hasmonean created holidays and observances, since almost all were based on military victories or defeats. But, it wasn’t JUST their pacifist needs that motivated THESE changes – it was also their origins in, and eventual rejection of, the Hasmonean dynasty! And yet, for all their efforts, one holiday remained so popular that it could not be removed – Chanukkah. It struck a chord, AND, it fell at the darkest and slowest time of the year, one already being celebrated by the Romans around them. Try as they might, the Rabbis could not rid themselves of this last reminder – and trust me, they tried EVERYTHING. The Books of Maccabees kept out of the final canon of TaNaKH. No scroll assigned to be read on the holiday. No mention in the Mishnah, the 2nd century retooling of Jewish law for this new reality. Nothing!

Only when they realized they could not make this holiday go away, some 500 – 700 years AFTER the events it celebrated, did the Rabbis attach the story of the miracle of the oil to the celebration! If they couldn’t wipe Chanukkah out, they would at least tie it to their world view, however artificially. Don’t believe their embrace was late and artificial? According to the Rabbis themselves, the rule for saying the longest blessing formula limits its use to actions that are mitzvot – commanded in Torah. Yet, think about the first blessing we say for Chanukkah – the holiday surgically removed and excluded from ALL of TaNaKH! It still starts with those ten words of the long blessing formula, as if the basis for lighting the Chanukkiyah is Biblical!!

The LAST trick of the Rabbis was to jigger the annual cycle for reading Torah. They left us no smoking gun statement that THIS is WHY the cycle runs as it does, but I have always found it far more than a coincidence that Mikeitz is almost always read during Chanukkah. Could the story of Joseph’s survival and re-elevation from the depths of the jail to rise to second in command of Egypt, all while maintaining his Jewish identity be any MORE of an indictment, from the Rabbinic perspective, of why they split with the Hasmoneans in the first place?! The Haftarah they assigned to this portion is the story of Solomon, the two prostitutes, and the baby, as depicted on our windows – one which features cunning logic over brute force, and in which, like Joseph’s interpretative skills, Solomon’s wisdom is ascribed to God! And then, the kicker. The special haftarah for Chanukkah, from the prophet Zechariah, where he teaches “Not by might, and not by power, but by wisdom…”

Yes friends, this Shabbat’s message IS all about… PREPAREDNESS! And it begins in the Torah, which I believe was deliberately chosen for this Shabbat! Joseph was ready when called upon. His response to Pharaoh allowed Egypt to be prepared for a killer famine, and kept his own family alive when they sought food with him. The Rabbis were prepared to take control in the chaos that followed the destruction of the second Temple, and able to make their changes into the norm for years to come. Even when, as with the celebration of Chanukkah, the Rabbis couldn’t completely get their way, they had a Plan B prepared to fall back on!

Just imagine, for a second, where our country could be today if our elected leaders, over the last several decades, had been more interested in getting us prepared for the seismic changes in reality that we have experienced. Virtually EVERY major problem facing our country today could have been avoided, if we had been prepared, and able to be pro-active, rather than reactive. Now, on issues like our own economy in the global world, immigration, security, global warming, we are far behind the 8-ball, unable to find meaningful compromise between competing political ideologies to solve these real life problems! Tell the worker who has been unemployed since January why he still can’t find a job – because we were unprepared for the shift that globalization and technology would create! Tell them why they are in danger of getting a double whammy tacked on – an end to their long term unemployment benefits AND a loss of their tax cuts – because our elected leaders cannot compromise their antiquated ideologies, even to help those so obviously in need of assistance. No WONDER the Tea Party movement, and Obama before that, struck a chord with their calls for change!

But how can we change when no one has laid the proper ground work for it, when we weren’t prepared for the changes thrust upon us? This goes beyond the politicians – we have a system that has grown too large too fast, and now threatens our long term survival. Pollution is what we create best today, still; the natural resources with which we stoke the fires of progress are finite, yet we still have not accepted that truth. We have allowed technology to rule us, because we had no Joseph, prepared to tell us a bitter truth in advance, able to prepare us and guide us through a tough and challenging time.

Even in our own lives, how prepared are we for realities we could face? Coming up on 10 years after 9/11, not even a full year removed from the worst winter in a century, how many of us have taken the recommended precautions and routinely keep our home stocked with what we would need to remain indoors completely for 7 – 14 days? How many of us have the battery powered radio, the rotary powered phone, the back-up generator, to allow us to continue to live if and when the power goes out and stays out for a while, and we are unable to move? Sadly, I think we know the answer is that few of us are! And if we choose to remain unprepared on an individual level, it assuredly makes it that much harder for us to be a part of the solutions to the more global challenges we face.

So, on this third night of Chanukkah, as we come together as a congregational mishpachah, chanukkiyot in hand, to sing songs and light lights and exchange gifts, we owe it to ourselves and to our world to dig a little deeper into our Torah portion for this Shabbat and into the story we celebrate on this Chanukkah eve. We owe it to ourselves and our children to give the gift of being prepared – able and willing to respond to the challenges we face today, and preparing to face the challenges that assuredly await us tomorrow. Anything less would be to sit, cowering in the dark, when all we really needed to do was to light a light! KYR

No comments:

Post a Comment