APPLES AND ORANGES, IT ISN’T

For the last few centuries, if there is one particular food associated with Chanukah, at least for those of us of eastern European descent, it would be the potato. Availability and cost factor aside, I truly believe, that come Chanukah, the potato is not only rich in potassium and vitamin C, but in meaning as well.

It must not go unnoticed, that in languages other than English there exists an intrinsic connection between potatoes and apples. In Hebrew, the word for apple is tapuach. In Hebrew, the word for potato is tapuach adamah or apple of the ground. The very same holds true in French (pomme vs. pomme de terre) and (old) Yiddish (eppel vs. erd epple).

The term “comfort food” dates back at least half a century. When it comes to comfort foods, the potato is way up there on the list. When it comes to comfort festivals, Chanukah is way up there on the list as well. Victory may have a thousand fathers, but Chanukah has over two thousand years in any number of countries celebrated by countless Jews. Perhaps it’s with good reason  that come the Festival of Lights, it is the potato that greets our palate and not the onion or the beet or any other vegetable.  If the tapuach adamah (Hebrew for potato) is a comfort food, then biblically speaking, it is the tapuach (Hebrew for apple) that is the consequence food. Rabbinic discussion aside, the apple a.k.a. the forbidden fruit, resulted in consequences that were far reaching (the Adam’s apple exists to this very day). If Adam and Eve hungered for that which was off limits, the Maccabees were fed up with fellow Jews hungering for that which was off limits. Adam and Eve were the evictees; the Maccabees were the evictors.

There is however more than one way to slice a potato and an apple. As much as they serve as comfort food and consequence food, the potato and apple are both foods of choice, albeit for an entirely different reason.  The potato is food of choice, because when it comes to our history, the Maccabees ought to be seen as a clan of choice. Not once, but at least three times in the Chanukah story, the Maccabees were confronted by a choice: to go to battle against a better trained, better equipped and bigger in number enemy, or not; to go about pillaging, destroying  and raping after victory was achieved, or not; to go ahead and light a paltry one-day supply of oil, or not. Because of this, the potato, the current choice vegetable of Chanukah has become the vegetable of choice. Yet, the apple represents choice as well. Eve, and subsequently Adam were also faced with a choice, when seduced by forbidden fruit, thanks to the serpent’s sales pitch:
eat or retreat. Eve and Adam made a poor choice and paid a price. The Maccabees on the other hand made an excellent choice and profited!

Have you ever wondered why pancakes are smothered in syrup, yet latkes are dipped into apple sauce? One need not be Sigmund Freud to conclude that latkes and apple sauce represent a symbiosis of human behavior, particularly when it involves Jewish heritage. Throughout history, we have, as a people, been confronted by choices. The correct choice (the potato) brings us comfort; the incorrect choice (the apple) confronts us with dire consequences. Each time our leaders or we as individuals made the wrong choice, we paid the price, often a steep price; each time our leaders or we as individuals made the right choice, we profited. Sometimes we even enjoyed a handsome profit.

Perhaps there is more than meets the eye when considering the moniker “Festival of Lights.” In addition to miracles and wondrous deeds, Chanukah sheds light on the connection between the potato and the apple, so very much the mainstay of modern Chanukah munchies. Perhaps the message is in the medium. Perhaps the message conveyed by potato latkes dipped in apple sauce is one that the Maccabees would want us to chew on.

YOU DECORATED MY LIFE

Contemporary American culture assures us that well before the turkey has tickled our taste buds, our eyes begin to feast on a plethora of Christmas decorations that pop up in the neighborhood. Such was the case with a house on the other side of the street. “Your house is clearly in the forefront,” I said to Julia Boyce who was in my office the other day. The Boyce house had been so tastefully (professionally) decorated, that I had to stop myself from giving Julia a big “Yasher Koach.” My neighbors’ house notwithstanding, I reassessed my comment hours later. I began to think about misplaced emphasis on decorations on the part of Christians, come Christmas and given our proclivity as Jews to parrot the greater culture, our misplaced emphasis on decorations, come the Festival of Lights.

Forgive me for “jumping the fence” and preaching a Christmas sermon before a church filled with Christians on the eve of December 24th, but if a preacher  really wanted to celebrate the birth in Bethlehem, then he or she would do well to instruct his or her parishioners to decorate the world with teachings surrounding a birth that would ultimately change the world beyond wildest expectations. Joseph and Mary may have been the first Jews to be turned away and refused a night’s stay.  Subsequent generations of Jews would be turned away and refused a life’s stay.  Isn’t it time for Christians to realize that come December 25th, mistletoe misses the point?

Once the Christian world is able to discern the difference between decorations that beautify the home and decorations that beautify the world, we, their “older brothers” will in all likelihood follow suit.

“Do you see what I see” should be the lyrics of a Chanukah song. Jews should be challenged to see various Maccabean messages in the flames of the candles irrespective of the creativity of the menorah that holds those candles. Shouldn’t a rabbi, an honest rabbi, who is untouched by the commercialism that has permeated the lives of his people, be reminding his congregation that as creative as Walt Disney Chanukah menorahs are, relegating the message of Chanukah to Mickey and Minnie, Donald and Daisy is pure fantasyland? It isn’t the menorah, or any other tangible object brought into Jewish homes for that eight-day period that decorates and beautifies, it is the very message contained in the flames of those Chanukah lights. Shouldn’t a rabbi be telling his congregants that they have it all wrong when it comes to making use of the flames of the Chanukah candles? Shouldn’t a rabbi tell his people that the flames are off limits only when it comes to physical benefit? Isn’t it time then to look into those flames and see the dark color closest to the flame and recall how Chanukah began in a dark period of time during our history, when an internecine struggle was rearing its head between Hasmoneans and Hellenists? Shouldn’t Chanukah be a time to show that the harmony of the lights more than offsets the acrimony that festered between groups of Jews?  Wouldn’t the ultimate Chanukah decoration for any home  be one where there is an emphasis is placed on the fact that no two flames are alike? Shouldn’t there be an explanation  that some flames will be larger while other flames will be smaller? Couldn’t it be pointed out that neither the size of the flame nor the intensity of the flame has any bearing whatsoever as to which flame will go out first? Doesn’t the fact that  all candles are standing together overshadow the differences of color, flame size, and burning time?

Our Christian brethren are busy decorating their homes because of a miracle that  that would ultimately change their lives, not their homes. Perhaps we Jews can busy ourselves by using the lessons found through looking deeply into the flames of the Chanukah lights. Let us make miracles happen. Let us illuminate our homes so that we ultimately bring light into the lives of those we touch. Let us decorate this world.

PRYING INTO PRAYER

A good many American Jews of retirement age are very much familiar with The Lord’s Prayer. Jewish, it isn’t. Pope Francis has been aware for some time now that something is amiss with the venerated Christian prayer. That is why it came as no surprise when it was reported that the Pontiff wished to tweak the text of the Lord’s Prayer. He was particularly troubled by Christians asking of G-d: “Lead us not into temptation.”

Meaning no disrespect to the Holy See, but temptation is not necessarily a bad thing. As far as Judaism is concerned, temptation comes in two flavors – good and bad. Trouble is, throughout the generations, so many Christian theologians have been stuck in the Garden of Eden, where the first couple was tempted by the cunning serpent to indulge in the forbidden fruit, that these theologians simply can’t see the forest for the tree (sic). For these theologians, temptation is synonymous with evil. “Gevalt,” exclaim our rabbis. Were it not for temptation, those who came across one small cruse of certified oil while cleaning up the Greek mess in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem would have been left in the dark. It was temptation that led them to light the oil, even though rationally they held out little, if any, expectation that the oil would last beyond twenty-four hours. Similarly, it was temptation and not intellect that led a small ragtag Maccabee army to engage in battle with a larger, better trained army that was superiorly equipped. Chanukah and (good) temptation go together like potato latkes and sour cream.

Meaning no disrespect to the Bishop of Rome, but G-d does not lead us into temptation, nor has G-d ever led us into temptation. Truth of the matter is G-d does not lead us anywhere. In Judaism we call that free will. And that’s the way it has been ever since Adam and Eve. This world is wired with free will for humans and because of this, G-d was able to say to Cain: If thou do well, things will work out just fine, but if you mess up, you’ll wish that you were never born. Just as G-d cannot lead us into complacency, so too G-d cannot led us into temptation. Some 21 centuries ago, there was any number of our people who were tempted by the Greek lifestyle that was so pervasive at the time. Those Jews earned the moniker Hellenists. And when the Hellenists went too far and brought that lifestyle into places that were off limits, the Hasmoneans took up arms against the Hellenists and civil war broke out. That’s how the story of Chanukah took root.

Meaning no disrespect to the Pontiff, but if he wishes to place G-d and temptation in the same sentence, then he might consider rewriting the Lord’s Prayer, so that the petitioner asks for strength, determination, and fortitude from HaShem to properly deal with temptation. If it’s good temptation, the petitioner should pray for strength not to have second thoughts or to shy away, but to go for it; if it’s bad temptation, the petitioner should pray for strength to fight that temptation and to overcome it. Just as there were those who succumbed to the Hellenist lifestyle, so too were there those who resisted the Hellenist lifestyle. And the rest they say, is the history of Chanukah.

As long as we live, as long as we are healthy in mind and soul, temptation will always be part of our lives. A true mentsch, perhaps even a Tzaddik is one who knows how and when to implement (good) temptation and when to subdue (bad) it. In doing so, that mentsch or Tzaddik  will succeed in bringing more light into this world than any Chanukah Menorah.

THAT REALLY TAKES THE CAKE

Yesterday, the Supreme Court met to hear the case of plaintiffs David Mullins and Charlie Craig and defendant Jack Phillips. Jack Phillips is proprietor of Masterpiece Cake Shop in Colorado. He refused to bake/create an elaborate wedding cake for Mr. Mullins and Mr. Craig, citing his religious beliefs that find same sex marriage to be at best, unacceptable.

The “Jewish response” is predictably split. Generally speaking, the Orthodox side with the baker; the Conservative and Reform side with the grooms. It seems to me however, that there ought to more to the Jewish response than denominational demarcation.
On more than one occasion, fellow Jews have “made a tsimmes” because of religious belief, or lack thereof. It mattered little to them if they took up the cudgel against government or private industry. A little over a decade ago, Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky created a ruckus over synthetic Christmas trees on display at Sea Tac airport. Although he insisted that all he wanted was equal footing for Chanukah menorahs being displayed as well, his outcry was seen as indignation, resulting in Christmas trees being removed from the airport. Once upon a time, airlines in this country provided meal service on domestic flights. Alaska Airlines was one of those carriers. On the meal tray, Alaska Airlines included a prayer card. A few decades back, a (Jewish) passenger made news, as she threatened Alaska Airlines with a lawsuit, claiming that the prayer card on her meal tray was an infringement on her religious beliefs and causing her to lose her appetite, thereby preventing her from eating the meal, much less enjoying it. It mattered little to this Jewish passenger that the prayer card on her meal tray contained verses from the Book of Psalms, otherwise known to us as “tehillim.”

I may very well be a lone voice, but it seems to me, that as a people that has been denied entry into colleges and Medical Schools and Law Schools because of “beliefs”, as a people that has been denied membership into Country Clubs and prohibited from living in certain neighborhoods in any number of American cities because of “beliefs”, we Jews should be most careful in considering and weighing beliefs, including those beliefs that are seen by many as being legitimate and kosher.

As a rabbi, I am empowered to officiate at non-Jewish weddings. As a rabbi, I am empowered to preside over the marriage of two non-Jews, who for whatever reason seek my services. Among the recurring nightmares that plague me, is being approached by a same sex couple –say, on Christmas day when I am in my office doing work, minding my own business. With marriage license in hand, they ask me to join them in matrimony. Does my refusal to do so, place me in the same onerous position as Jack Phillips? (I cannot truthfully fall back on the claim that I do not officiate at civil ceremonies, because there was at least one civil ceremony that I did preside over.)

It seems to me that with Chanukah soon upon us with its message of establishing boundaries (the straw that broke the camel’s back was a Hellenist Jew who overstepped his boundaries and sacrificed a pig on the holy altar. Similarly the Greek king Antiochus overstepped his boundaries with his harsh decries interfering with the practice of the belief of a foreign people) that regardless of yesterday’s finding of the Supreme Court, it behooves us to carefully establish boundaries that will not only protects us but  respects others as well.

IT’S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

To the best of my knowledge, Christmas Eve coincides with erev Chanukah four times every one hundred years. This is one of them. Coincidence aside, I believe that there is much that we Jews can learn, as so many in this world celebrate a virgin birth, part and parcel of Immaculate Conception.
Christmas is a time for celebration. The “faithful, joyful and triumphant” are beckoned to Bethlehem. Mankind is exhorted to celebrate a miracle. Chanukah is also time for celebration. But the focus of Chanukah is not the celebration of a miraculous birth, but rather of a miraculous life. Modern day Modiin is a city of just under 100,000 located pretty much midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Two thousand years ago, Modiin was the hometown of the Maccabees. Thanks to their daring and heroic efforts, the Maccabees taught us what a miraculous life is all about. Time after time, the Maccabees not only went up against a Greek enemy, they went up against the odds. Chanukah has done a phenomenal job in inculcating in us the miracle of the oil as well as the miracle of the battle. Chanukah has yet to imbue us with the miracle of the lives led by Mattathias, the Kohen Gadol or High Priest, his five sons as well as their followers. It is their lives that we should be celebrating.
Joseph and Mary aside, Christmas centers itself around one individual. Christmas asks that we believe in the birth of one child who will one day bring salvation to this world. Chanukah also centers itself around one individual. Chanukah also asks that we believe. But rather than focus on a child, Judaism asks that each of us believes in our self. Judaism is a religion of defiance – in the very best sense of the word. Judaism maintains that heroes are not limited to Maccabee like warriors who go up against bigger, superior equipped and better trained armies. The greatest challenge warns Judaism is not to succumb to self-doubt or apathy or lethargy. These are the enemies that threaten us. Believing in our self enables us to work wonders as well as to and accomplish what we thought to be unbelievable. Chanukah challenges us to become modern day Maccabees. The Maccabees were victorious because they believed in themselves. If we truly wish to celebrate their victories, we can afford to do no less when it comes to believing in ourselves.
Peace on earth is predicated on mankind’s response to a heavenly act. Because of the miracle in the manger, mankind is charged with the responsibility of living as well as disseminating the teachings of the divine. It is a daunting task that requires a tremendous amount a dedication as well as an endless amount of work. Chanukah also sees the interconnection between miracles and hard work. Only Chanukah sees it in reverse order. If the Maccabees taught us anything, it’s that the hard work on our part impressed HaShem to such an extent that He wanted to participate as well. This explains the miraculous victory; this explains the miraculous oil. In both situations it was mankind, not HaShem who had to take the initiative.
Should it ever happen that you overhear someone saying that Chanukah is a Jewish Christmas, just smile knowing that in some respects they are diametric opposites of one another.