Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Welcoming Chanukah

We Jews like to do even the obvious things a little differently. Case in point: our holidays (or, if you prefer, Holy Days) run from sundown to sundown, rather than day to day. Thus, tonight is the first night of Chanukah this year (yes, that's different, too, but it's also another post), while tomorrow is the first day. In all, we'll celebrate the Festival of Lights for eight nights, each evening adding another candle to our menorahs.
And because we live in a predominently Christian country (life's tough, Penelope), we've absorbed some of the ambiance of the season, so there's a lot of gift-giving that goes on, despite the fact that there's no religious compulsion to do so. As with our Christian neighbors, we Jewish parents walk that difficult path between "too much" and "not enough" with regards to the commercialization of our holiday.
I am blessed to have a number of Christian clergy among my clients, and this time of year I often hear them wish for "putting the Christ back in Christmas." Of course, putting the "Chan back in Chanukah" only works on a certain (gastronomic) level, so we look for other ways to imbue the "spirit of the season" in our progeny.
Now, I'm going to make what may appear to be an abrupt transition here, but bear with me and you'll be rewarded.
In Judaism, the concept of "charity" is expressed in the Hebrew term "tzedakah." But this word actually translates more accurately as "righteousness." In fact, it is closely related to the word "tzaddik" or "righteous one." One of the most famous of biblical scholars, Moses Maimonides (more commonly known as "the Rambam") postulated 8 levels of tzedakah (as there are eight days of Chanukah; we'll come back to that). In fact, even those who receive "charity" themselves "must also give tzedakah to another."
And now we come full circle:
If you stop to think about it, our children are (perhaps) the neediest of all. They depend on us for the very necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter. Yet they are required to observe tzedakah, as well. As noted in this morning's USA Today, "many Jewish families are highlighting the spiritual side of Hanukkah by devoting at least one of the holiday's eight nights to tzedakah."
This is critically important: for many American Jews, it's the only time they really spend celebrating Judaism in their homes (Shabbat, the Sabbath, is actually the original home-based holiday, but is often left unobserved in modern Jewish homes). With so much attention focused on the "eight crazy nights," it's actually an ideal time to discuss what tzedakah really means, and its importance to Jewish life.
Eight levels of giving, eight nights of light: coincidence?
I think not.
Happy Chanukah!
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