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Shabbat Hanukkah Sermon (Miketz 12/27/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

A Jew is a Jew

This past week has been very disconcerting. I’ve lived my whole life in this country, and I have even experienced virulent antisemitism personally, yet it was not until the last few days that I have begun to fear that America has reached a tipping point, that all Jews need to be wary of this threat.

When the attacker entered the rabbi’s home in Monsey on the eighth night of Chanukah, the 13th attack in NY this month, the verse spoken by King David entered my mind (Samuel 2 1:18): “It’s time to teach the children of Judah how to shoot the arrow.” King Saul, his son, Jonathan, and the Northern Israelite Army had just been decimated by the Philistines. When David realizes that the Philistine threat would now turn onto his tribe of Judah, he responds with the most basic truth: we need to be able to protect ourselves.

Now I’m not saying we must have armed congregants as they do in Texas, but the hiring of armed guards during prayers and Hebrew School among other protective measures should be part of a discussion.

This is the forum we’re going to have at MHJC this Friday night at 7 PM. Before services start, we’ll take time to air our concerns, and discuss what steps we need to take to protect ourselves, as well as steps we can take to improve race relations. One of our congregants, who is in charge of Homeland Security for Nassau County, will share his experience and counsel. Warm food and drinks will accompany the discussion. We’ll then have a service dedicated to the recent victims of anti-Semitism in our area.

The attacks over Chanukah seemed to be geared toward the Ultra-Orthodox communities, but that should provide us no sense of safety as the most violent attack in American history took place last year on a Conservative synagogue. To the anti-Semite, a Jew is a Jew.

This past Friday night, I shared a story of how two students from Yeshiva University went to Crown Heights in the 1950s to listen to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson speak about Chanukah (this was before he was appointed the Lubavitcher Rebbe). Rabbi Schneerson said something novel that he thought was uniquely Chassidic.

Two days, later when they heard the leader of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, speak about Chanukah, they were dumbfounded that he said basically the same thing.

The Rav, as he was known to all of his students, began with the renowned question: Why do we observe Chanukah for eight days? After all, there was enough oil for the first day. The fact that the menorah burned that day was no miracle. It was only the fact that it burned for the next seven days that was a miracle. And so, logically, we ought to observe Chanukah only for the last seven days, not for eight.

It took three days for them to go from Jerusalem up into the Galilee where pure oil could be found. It took three days to come back with the oil. Shabbat is a day when you do not travel. So, it took seven days for the Maccabees to bring the pure oil to the Sanctuary. Why did they not wait until then? Why did they light the menorah with the one cruse of oil that they found, knowing that it was going to go out in a day? Why didn’t they wait seven days until a sufficient supply of pure oil could be brought?

The Rav answered that question by looking into the Rambam’s (Maimonides) great Code of Jewish Law – the Mishneh Torah. The Mishneh Torah’s section on the Laws of Chanukah begins in a very strange way. First, it tells the whole story of Chanukah. It describes in great detail how Antiochus persecuted the Torah-loyal Jews, and then it describes in great detail how the Maccabees arose and rebelled against him and his armies and how they recaptured Jerusalem. Then and only then does the Rambam finally get around to the laws of Chanukah!

The Rav asked a very simple question: What’s going on here? This isn’t a history book – this is a law book! So why does the Rambam, to whom every single word is precious and no word is extraneous, describe the history of what happened, and then, finally, get around to giving us the laws of Chanukah?

The Rav’s answer was: ‘This too is Halachah (Jewish Law)!’ What the Rambam is teaching us is that we have to do everything that is in our power. The Maccabees had to defeat Antiochus. They had to recapture Jerusalem. They had to find the last remaining cruse of oil and light it. And then – and only then – did they turn to G-d and beg for the lights to remain lit. Only after they had done everything that was in their power to do did they turn to God and ask for a one-day supply of oil to last eight days.

That is why we say that the miracle was eight days. The fact that the Maccabees did all of what they needed to do, including lighting the Menorah when the opportunity came into their hand, made the first day miraculous as well.

What was striking was that two rabbis, so apart in their outlook and dress, said basically exactly the same thing, for A Jew is a Jew.

If the Miracle of Chanukah is that Jews then met the challenge of their day, even engaging in war when they had to, then we need to hear that message as well.

No one wants locked doors and armed guards by synagogues. Unfortunately, that has been the standard for synagogues in Europe for decades. We are at that stage of need now, and it’s up to us to add the protection we need for ourselves and subsequent generations of Jews.

I look forward to talking about our concerns together, as well as seeing what solutions we can implement.

May 2020 be a better year for the Jews and all peoples,

R’ Neil

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
244 Manetto Hill Road, Plainview, NY 11803
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