Chanukah Sermon

Balancing our Jewish Lives
A week ago our community was shaken, shocked and saddened by the untimely death of Rabbi Shmuel Mann of B’nai Israel in Aurora. This is a profound loss for the B’nai Israel community in particular but also to all of us in the Western Suburbs. Rabbi Mann will be sorely missed. His twin brother, Rabbi Akiva Mann, spoke movingly in his eulogy about Rabbi Mann’s scholarship, about his love of people and about his deep integrity. In talking about his beloved brother, Rabbi Akiva Mann said something that made me think. He pointed out how his brother always emphasized to his congregation that important as ritual practice is, our ethical behavior toward one another, our commitment to Tikum Olam, our compassion and caring for others are equally important. I thought to myself: curious that in my congregation I feel I need to deliver the mirror image of Rabbi Mann’s message:  that as important as our ethical behavior toward one another is,  and our commitment to Tikun Olam, repairing the world, ritual practice is equally important. Perhaps this is due to the fact that B’nai Israel is a more traditional synagogue than ours, and its members more attentive to ritual. They do not need as many reminders of how important ritual is in our lives. Perhaps they need more reminders of their religious responsibilities to make the world a better place. I have no doubt that our congregation is extremely strong and very committed to universal values — our commitment to feeding the hungry, and to volunteering our time and energies in a wide range of social justice issue – values and commitments we share with those of various faiths. For this I am immensely proud and so should you be. However, a lot of us, I feel, need to make ritual observance a more central part of our Jewish lives. We need to pay more attention to lighting Shabbat candles in our homes, on having a challah on our table Friday nights, on saying Kiddush as we sit down as a family for the special Sabbath meal, on resting on the Sabbath and on observing other rituals that are particular to Judaism. I can almost guarantee that observing one of two of our precious rituals consistently, would enrich our spirit as well as our family and communal lives. One of the home rituals performed by most of us is the lighting of the Chanukah candles.  According to the Talmud, the primary reason we light the candles on Chanukah is to “publicize the miracle of Chanukah”. The miracle is not the military victory of the Maccabees, but the miraculous intervention by G-d when one vial of oil lasted for eight days. We are to publicize the miracle by placing the lit menorah outside our doorways or in the windows of our homes, so that passers-by can see them, and be reminded of the miracle of Chanukah.  There is an interesting discussion among the rabbis of the Talmud about what constitutes the mitzvah of the menorah. One rabbi says that a person has completed the mitzvah to light the candles once the candles have been lit. Another rabbi states that one has not completed the mitzvah of lighting the candles until they are placed in the window so that others can see them.  The disagreement is over whether the actual “lighting” of the candles is the main part of the mitzvah, or whether the “placing” of the candles in the window is the main part of the mitzvah. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a Chassidic master who lived circa 1800, comments upon this Talmudic disagreement from a psychological perspective.  He writes that a person should always try to perform a mitzvah with joy and great desire, with fervor and with meditating on G-d’s greatness. To perform a mitzvah is a wonderful privilege, and our enthusiasm for doing it should know no bounds. But, he acknowledges, our heart is not always in it. We are not always able to perform the mitzvah with the proper “kavanah” the proper intention, with the right attitude.  A person might then think – “If I am not “feeling” it, I should not perform it.” This, writes Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, is the hidden meaning of what at first glance appears to be a disagreement in the Talmud — whether “lighting” is the essence of the mitzvah, or whether “placing” is the essence of the mitzvah.  This is not a disagreement at all, claims Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. Rather, in asserting that the “lighting” is the essence of the mitzvah, we mean that a person should optimally perform a mitzvah with great joy, as if his or her soul is on fire. When the other opinion maintains that “placing” is the essence of the mitzvah, we mean that even when a person falls from that place of fieriness and enthusiasm, he or she should still perform the mitzvah.  In the first instance, the fervor of the person uplifts the lighting. In the second instance, the lighting uplifts the person. This is true of all mitzvahs, whether of the “ethical” or the “ritual” kind. This is what happened to Dr. Laura Schulman, who published her story in the Jewish Press.  She writes that over the years she had become very distant from her Jewish roots and apathetic about Jewish practice. She was attending a medical convention when she walked by the public lighting of a menorah on the steps of a building on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “My eyes welled with tears,” she writes. “…. To be away from my family that first night of the holiday felt cold and lonely. Now, seeing the lights of the first night’s flames of that big menorah, my heart lit up also, and I felt the warmth of my people all around me.” When she returned to Seattle, she contacted a rabbi for the first time in her life and told him of her experience in Baltimore. That flame in Baltimore ignited a spark that led her to reconnect with her Jewish community and to live an active Jewish life. The flame of that Menorah continues to burn steadily within her. Such is the power of ritual. Rabbi Mann, may his memory be a blessing, reminds us that we need to strive to balance our Jewish lives with both ritual and good deeds, good deeds and ritual. Together these have the capacity to uplift our lives in unimagined ways. Shabbat Shalom