X-Box, Lego or Let’s Rock! Elmo.… Which gift will our children enjoy? Do we give one big gift at the beginning of Chanukah or one on each night? What do we do at a Chanukah party besides eat latkes (potato pancakes) and spin dreidel?
For most American Jews, these questions are most pressing during the Festival of Lights.
Fortunately, lighting the Chanukah candles is the most popular Jewish ritual in our society. Unfortunately, though, it is a challenge to move beyond the display of a menorah in our windows and the latest gifts from Amazon. Chanukah is not a Jewish Christmas. In Chanukah we celebrate the defeat of the Greek army whose desire it was to eradicate our identity and tradition.
Chanukah is anti-assimilationist.
Chanukah is the holiday of rediscovering our Jewish roots and the secret of our survival. If we have been to Paris and didn’t see the Mona Lisa, we have not been to Paris. If we experience Chanukah without seeing the hidden lights, we have not experienced Chanukah to the utmost. Each Jewish holiday is a vehicle for spiritual growth — an energizer.
What is the ultimate gift we can give our children on Chanukah? What gift will nurture their Jewish identity, give them joy, and strengthen their character and family bonds? It is not a computer, even with a Chanukah program. The greatest gift is Shabbat.
Every Chanukah coincides with a Shabbat. The secret of our ability to light Chanukah candles despite efforts to squelch the flame of Judaism throughout Jewish history is the observance of Sabbath Shabbat is a weekly affirmation of the primacy of our faith in our lives.
Material gifts have a limited shelf life. Shabbat — a spiritual gift — lives on. Shabbat affords the Jew the tools to spiritual fulfillment and meaning. Sabbath enriches our lives with infinite everlasting value.
Deep down, our children do not want our gifts — they want us. They want our time, attention and love.
Sabbath is an oasis in time. Rather than lighting the Chanukah candles on Friday night and going out, light the Shabbat candles in addition to the Chanukah candles and stay home.
Spend Friday evening and Saturday talking with your family about the significance of Jewish identity. Go to synagogue. Sing Sabbath and Chanukah songs. Identify how each member of the family brings light to your life. The Israeli writer Ahad Ha’am reflects: “More than the Jew has kept Sabbath, Sabbath has kept the Jew.” It is the key to Jewish revival.
The question is not have we been through another Chanukah, but has Chanukah been through us?
Ideas abound for making Chanukah a fun and meaningful holiday for children. But whether it is the latest Chanukah video, talking dreidel or encouraging our children to give one of their gifts away to someone less fortunate, without personal commitment to Jewish living our innovative ideas will falter.
The essence of Jewish parenting is to teach our children important life values. Spending Shabbat with one’s family in an interactive environment away from work, the mall or the television may seem like a hardship, but it is the ultimate statement of our priorities for our children.
We would not be lighting the candles today if we did not have an ancestor who observed the Sabbath and lived a committed Jewish life. The following short story crystallizes our challenge and opportunity.
Once a couple was going on a Caribbean vacation and leaving little Jessica with Bubby and Zayde. The grandparents were delighted to have their granddaughter in their home for the next two weeks.
Jessica learned quickly that there were new ground rules in her grandparents’ home. Before and after eating, she made blessings over her food. In the morning, she recited Modeh Ani to thank G-d for restoring her soul. In the evening, she recited the Shema.
Jessica was convinced that there were four people in the house, one of them invisible called G-d.
The sun tanned parents returned to reclaim Jessica and thank the grandparents. As Jessica was leaving, she raised her hand to kiss the mezuzah and she was heard to say, “Goodbye, G-d. I will not be seeing You till next year.”
At the end of the holiday, each one of us will affirm: I have been through Chanukah. Each one of us will share Chanukah stories with family and our children will certainly cherish their gifts (for a short time). However, the question is not have we been through another Chanukah, but has Chanukah been through us?
The flames of the candles symbolize the spark of G-dliness within each one of us and our capacity to not only light the flames of Chanukah but the flames of Shabbat.
After Chanukah, may we be able to say to G-d, we welcome You home each and every Friday night.
With blessings for a Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen