Hanukkah at the White House

Last night I attended the Hanukkah reception at the White House. I was honored to be here. It is special that in the Jewish Learning Center of New York’s first year, I had this opportunity to attend such an important event in the American Jewish community and by extension represent the organization that I work for.

On a personal level, I am a second generation American. My grandfather was an immigrant to this country, his formal education ended at a young age. He lived in Poland, where he often experienced anti-semitism. Equal rights were nonexistent. He came to this country for a better life and for freedom. He found this in America, and gave all four of his children greater opportunities in this country.

In my grandfather’s wildest imagination, I do not think he could have envisioned that his grandson, a rabbi, with a kipah on his head, would proudly walk into the White House to celebrate Hanukkah at an event hosted by the President and the First Lady. These were my thoughts yesterday just before my wife and I walked into the White House to attend the Hanukkah reception.

This was my first time inside the White House. I have protested outside the White House on behalf of numerous causes over the course of many different administrations. What a statement about the United States and about freedom of speech that one who protests the government outside at times, can also be welcomed inside as well.

We live in challenging times. The horrors of terrorism that we are experiencing here in America, in Israel, and throughout the world are absolutely terrible. We can enter into a conversation in the public marketplace of ideas about what the underlying causes are and how to deal with this situation. We should not lose sight of the serious issues we are facing. However, we should simultaneously appreciate where we are as a country and where we are as a people that events such as the White House Hanukkah reception are now normal in America (and there are comparable events for other minorities as well), no matter which political party is in office. At any of the annual Hanukkah celebrations you will find diverse leaders of the United States Government present. The same is true for Jewish leaders, the full spectrum of the Jewish community was represented at this event. It was truly a miraculous night, which was fitting, because the holiday of Hanukkah celebrates miracles.

According to the way the story of Hanukkah is told in the Talmud, Shabbat 21b, after the Jews were successful in their revolt against the Assyrian-Greeks, they went back to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), to the Beit Hamikdash (The Temple), and saw that the Beit Hamikdash had been defiled by the Assyrian-Greeks. They purified the Beit Hamikdash and then began to search to find oil to light the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabra, which was used in the religious experience of the Beit Hamikdash. They eventually found one container of oil that still had the seal of the Kohain Gadol (High Priest) on it, but there was only enough oil in the flask that was found to last one day. As we know, a miracle happened and the amount of oil that was only supposed to last one day lasted for eight days. As a result, we celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the Hanukkiah (the special eight-branched Menorah used on Hanukkah) for eight days.

The Beit Yosef, a commentator on the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (two of the most important Jewish Legal Codes) asks an interesting question in Orech Chayim 670. Why is Hanukkah eight days long? The miracle of the oil was really seven days, not eight. The Maccabees found one container of oil that was enough for one day. Therefore, Hanukkah should be celebrated for seven days, not eight? Seven lights for seven nights, not eight?

I would like to suggest that the first day of Hanukkah is our miracle; it celebrates human miracles, all of the human miracles of the Hanukkah story. The human miracle of the Maccabees choosing to revolt. The human miracle of the Maccabees choosing to return to the Beit Hamikdash and purify it. Lastly, the miracle of looking for and finding the container of oil. The next seven days of Hanukkah celebrate God’s miracle. When we take one step towards God, God takes many steps towards us. In this case it is seven steps, but potentially God can take infinite steps toward us.

It is interesting that dreidels (a four sided spinning top played with on Hanukkah) in the Diaspora have the letters: Nun, Gimel, Hey and Shin or Nes, Gadol, Hayah, Sham, meaning, a great miracle happened there. Dreidels in Israel have the letters: Nun, Gimel, Hey and Pey or Nes, Gadol, Hayah, Po, a great miracle happened here. When we understand that we can join with God to make a miracle happen anywhere in the world, in that moment we are saying, a great miracle is happening here, right now. If my grandfather were alive today and he saw me at the White House in Washington DC yesterday, he may have very well said, “Nes, Gadol, Haya, Po.” Wherever you are are in the world, join in partnership with God and make a miracle happen.

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