Hanukkah arrives Dec. 12 at sundown.
Jews around the world kindle on that night and every successive night until the eight-branched Hanukkah menorah is fully lit. Actually, the menorah is nine branches but one of them is for the lighting candle -- the shamash.
On the first night of Hanukkah three prayers are said after lighting the first candle.
The first is a prayer to acknowledge that by kindling the Hanukkah lights we are fulfilling a commandment from God: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hallows us with commandments and commands us to kindle the Hanukkah lights."
The second prayer acknowledges the miracle of the single cruse of holy oil that lasted for eight days in the lights of the rededicated Temple in Jerusalem. This happened after the successful Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabee family against the Syrian Greeks in 165 BCE, who had outlawed Judaism and demanded that Zeus -- not God -- be worshiped on the Temple mount.
The third prayer that is only recited on the first night of Hanukkah is a non-Hanukkah-specific prayer of thankfulness and joy that accompanies every Jewish holiday and happy occasion: "Blessed are You, O lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment/time/season."
I particularly love this prayer (called the Shehecheyanu) because it picks out the three essential elements for spiritual gratitude in any faith:
-- "Who has kept us alive."
The fundamental prayer here on earth is the prayer thanking God for our life. When we thank God for keeping us alive, it also makes it a lot easier to thank God for all the more elaborate blessings that have been showered upon us. Life is the spiritual baseline blessing.
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-- "And sustained us."
If your life is spent huddling together in a makeshift shelter without food or heat or water, then your life, while still a blessing worthy of thanks, is not a life particularly conducive to joy or thanks. We need sustenance on top of our life. When I say this prayer, and not just on Hanukkah, I do not mean just food, shelter, clothing and golf (the essentials of life). I also mean to give thanks for my friends and for my family who sustain me and for all of you, dear readers, who give me a purpose and a fulfillment of my need to teach and learn. After all "Man does not live by bread alone." (Deuteronomy 8:3 or Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 in Matthew 4:4 -- take your pick)
-- "And brought us to this moment."
We do not simply arrive at the moments of our life. We are brought to the moments of our life. I do not mean by this that our lives are ruled by fate. Any regular reader of this column knows how deeply I believe in human free will. What I do mean is that in addition to our freedom, there are also moments when certain people appear, when certain opportunities arise, and when the road before us reaches a fork. I do believe that we are brought to such moments so that we can choose life and love and work. We are brought to such moments and we are free to choose in such moments. Both are true. That is how I met Father Tom Hartman. I was brought to him. We often said this prayer together.
The Maccabees could have remained passive and silent in the face of grotesque religious oppression by King Antiochus, but they chose to fight for their freedom and for their God who also just happens to be ... God. If they had chosen to succumb; if they had abandoned their Judaism, then it is quite likely that Judaism would have disappeared like the huge but now extinct religion of their time, Gnosticism. Just consider how the history of the world would have changed if at the time of Jesus there was no Judaism for him to be born into. What would Christianity mean without its Jewish roots? And how could Islam have been born if its two sister religions of Judaism and Christianity had vanished 600 years before Mohammad (peace be upon him)? What we are as the Abrahamic faiths and as the foundations of Western civilization depends upon Hanukkah and the choices the Maccabees made over two millennia ago. Hanukkah is a minor holiday but theirs was a major choice.
So at this holy time let us remember the Maccabees and let us remember the manger, because those two events, believed to be miracles by two great faiths, changed the world and change us every day we can say the prayer and make the choice to believe that we were brought to this moment for some purpose only God can know.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2017 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.