Welcoming Autumn

Shalom! It is a joy to write to you, particularly as I write on a day when the invigorating chill of autumn is in the air, and the leaves in their full-throated turning towards the brilliant colors that we love so much.

We are rapidly approaching Thanksgiving, a time for gathering to appreciate the incredible bounty of all kinds of harvest — physical, communal, interpersonal and spiritual. And, while it is not precisely the confluence of dates that was afforded us in 2013 when the lunisolar calendar that determines our Jewish life and the Gregorian calendar that rules our secular world gave us the miracle of Thanksgivukkah, we are once again in a Jewish-American holiday mash-up this year, as the First Night of Hanukkah falls on the Sunday evening concluding Thanksgiving weekend. On the evening of November 28, Jews across the United States will rise from their tryptophan-induced slumber to kindle the first light on the Hanukkiah, remembering the victory of the Maccabees, the re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple and the varied values of this Festival of Lights.

As was pointed out when the Thursday of Thanksgiving coincided with that first candle back in 2013 (a phenomenon that we will have to wait until 2070 and then again 2165 in order to replicate), the values of these two celebrations coming together provides an opportunity to emphasize the best in each of them. In addition to all the kitschy (and commercial) products that made their way around — my favorite of which was the Menurkey, a menorah in the shape of a turkey where feathers were replaced by eight candles and the shamash was the turkey’s head — these holidays each stress the value of appreciating bounty in a moment of seeming scarcity. The Talmud’s description of the miracle of the special oil for lighting the menorah as part of the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, when a one-day supply of pure oil lasted 8 days motivates so much of what we teach about Hanukkah and our appreciation of what we have over what we lack. The descriptions of bountiful harvests that followed times of struggle, famine and drought that faced the Plymouth settlers in the 1620s provide similar impetus. Writing in 1623, one settler’s journal notes the result of abundant rain following a prolonged drought: “And afterward the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with the interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving … By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God.”

Further overlap of the holidays is found in the specific motivations of both prime actors in the two stories. Separated by two millennia, both the Maccabees and the Pilgrims were religious groups seeking to exercise what they saw as the essential (even, Puritan) version of their faith despite opposition, pressure and even persecution by more widespread and popularist interpretations. While the Maccabees sought to engage in a battle to purify and rededicate the Jerusalem Temple, thereby re-taking control of the religious life of ancient Israel, the Pilgrims sought the establishment of colonies in the New World where they could exercise their interpretation of the faith separate from the oversight of the central church. In both cases, though, the legacy for today concerns the rights of a minority religious community to freely practice their rituals without having to conform to the ways of the majority culture. The message here is not lost on us as American Jews. The Jewish community in America was the first anywhere since the destruction of the Second Temple to enjoy full and equal citizenship rights as well as the protections afforded diverse religious practices baked into the foundational DNA of the American experiment. In short, Hanukkah is at least partially about our rights to do something different from the surrounding society — a lesson that is particularly resonant during the times when the lunisolar and Gregorian calendars typically find the confluence of Hanukkah and another more widely-observed holiday.

This year, the first night of Hanukkah gives us yet another reason to celebrate. We will be gathering as a Temple Isaiah community to celebrate the work and service of our beloved b’nai mitzvah tutor of over 30 years, Dalia Feldman. In this time, Dalia has lovingly prepared well over a thousand young people to stand on the bimah as bar and bat mitzvah, sharing her love of Torah, gentle encouragement, and often a piece of chocolate — because learning must also be sweet! In September, Dalia officially retired from her sacred service to this congregation, and it is most fitting that we will honor her on a holiday that emphasizes dedication, light and Jewish pride. We hope a wide and diverse representation of our Temple Isaiah family will come together for an evening of tribute, lighting the first candle of Hanukkah and celebrating the legacy of Dalia’s decades of commitment. We are also asking that if you have stories about Dalia (b’nai mitzvah-related or not!), pictures of or with her, or other things you would like to contribute that you email them as soon as possible to Michelle Ostroff for inclusion in a commemorative book we are compiling for Dalia, of which a copy which will reside in the TI Library where she spent countless hours tutoring our young people.

Please join us on the evening of Sunday, November 28 at 7pm for this special celebration and a reception to follow. For our post-high-school-aged young people there is a special pre-event scheduled to both join in the celebrations with Dalia and re-connect with their Temple Isaiah friends on this weekend that finds many returning home for the holiday. Keep an eye out for more information on that gathering in coming weeks as well.

The abundant joy of our harvest motivates us to sit at the Thanksgiving table and light the menorah with just a bit more gratitude in our hearts. May we all be blessed to recognize how full our lives are with the blessing of light.

Rabbi Craig Axler