Many people are familiar with the Chanukah miracle of the small flask of ritually pure oil discovered amid the wreckage of a defiled Jerusalem Temple. What was seemingly enough for only one day …
Many people are familiar with the Chanukah miracle of the small flask of ritually pure oil discovered amid the wreckage of a defiled Jerusalem Temple. What was seemingly enough for only one day lasted and burned for eight. This is but one reason for celebrating Chanukah for eight days. The eight-day period is also the required time for the process of rededication of a desecrated Temple.
But there is a less obvious lesson that peeks out of the Chanukah narrative worthy of mention and reflection. Among the many forms of religious persecution levied against the Judean Commonwealth was the prohibition against public forums of spiritual experience, including the weekly reading of the Torah. This liturgical feature would normally unite the Jewish people for the purpose of positive public assembly and shared study. Each week had its assigned portion, as is still customary in synagogues today. When it was no longer possible to conduct the full public reading due to the oppressive measures of their Syrian-Greek captors, the Jewish people of old resorted to adopting, for this liturgical purpose, a shorter and less prominent, but topically analogous, portion taken from the Prophets. In this way, they were able to maintain a modicum of their regular reading ritual. When order was restored to Jerusalem and the normal course of religious practice was reinstated, including the public reading of the Law, they did not, however, do away with the shorter, substitute reading, but instead incorporated it into the larger weekly practice. This prophetic add-on persists to this very day and is known as the Haftarah.
What is significant here is that a substitute reading, perhaps no longer necessary, has not been dispensed with but serves as a constant reminder of what proved useful and salutary during a time of spiritual suffering. We might then borrow from this otherwise small liturgical change an important moral lesson for our lives today. How often do we benefit from the goodness and grace of “helpers” who rise to the occasion in the midst of one of our travails in life? And yet, after the storm has passed, it is easy to forget that caring soul and even dismiss the magnanimity of that earlier act.
I am reminded of a humorous but not unbelievable story told of a well-heeled patient suffering from serious illness. When pleading with his doctor to do all that was possible to cure him of his malady, he tacked on a promise to give a sizable gift to the hospital’s expansion project should he be healed from this life-threatening illness. When the danger passed and the patient was well, the doctor approached him to discuss his pledge. He replied with incredulity, “If I pledged that, I must have really been ill.”
All such acts of compassion, concern and intercession in our lives in moments of dire need should become part of a conscious inventory of thanksgiving for acts of unbridled goodness.
We are therefore challenged and bidden by the dictates of decency and the moral obligation to be grateful for those who have stood up for and with us in our moments of unrest and vulnerability, to recognize and continue to appreciate these earlier acts of kindness.
So this short prophetic reading that today attaches itself to the larger weekly Torah portion has not been eliminated, reduced, or ignored, but rather serves as an honored ritual for a skilled and knowledgeable participant in the Sabbath service.
Our ability to remember yesterday’s “helpers” is the fuel for future faith in the goodness of humankind. Through this liturgical lesson, born out of the Chanukah experience, we are treated to an ethos of reflection, retrospection and attachment to the good deeds of the past that can continue to inspire and serve as a gracious gift that keeps on giving.
Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is the president and CEO of Sayva Associates, an elder-care practice based in Sullivan County. He has served as a pulpit rabbi, hospital and hospice chaplain, Jewish educator and communal executive.