Friday, December 6, 2013

Thanksgivukkah: Sukkot in December

This is a reprint of a post I wrote for the 401j blog, the new Jewish collaborative of Jews in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s in Rhode Island.

Most years, Hanukkah clearly takes second place to Christmas in the annual “My Winter Holiday Is Better than Yours” competition. This year the tides seem to be turning, if only just this once, due exclusively to the coincidental concurrence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. While Jews across the country are certain to be celebrating Thankgivukkah with their menurkeys and cranberry jelly doughnuts, I’m also fairly certain that most non-Jews will be celebrating Thanksgivukkah instead of Thanksgiving this year as well. It turns out that combining a religious winter holiday with a cherished national holiday (complete with school breaks, vacation, football, and the biggest sales of the year) is the perfect way to increase the market and help a holiday gain exposure.
Even Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist commenting on the ironic calendric coincidence. As he satirically noted during a recent show, “Hanukkah celebrates the struggle of an oppressed people’s fight against invading conquerors, while Thanksgiving is about our healthy nurturing relationship with the Indians.”  I’m sure Colbert is well aware that satire was actually one of the hallmarks of Hellenistic culture.
All of this got me thinking – what if there’s more to Thanksgivukkah than aggressive Jewish marketing with catchy holiday hybrids. Perhaps, just maybe, Colbert was on to something when he suggested that the stories are in fact polar opposites, and that the pilgrims may as well have starred as Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks, while the Native Americans were in fact the indigenous oppressed religious and ethnic minority.
Pondering all of this led me to try and shed my western/democratic tinted reading glasses (to some extent, anyway) and consider the story again anew. One of the striking features of the extra-biblical Book of Maccabees is that there is absolutely no mention of Hanukkah’s most popular story, the miracle of a single cruse of oil lasting for eight days. There are lengthy descriptions of Hasmonean revolt, the battles, the decrees, the rededication, seemingly everything . . . but Hanukkah’s most popular miracle is mysteriously and unmistakably absent.
If not for the oil, why, pray tell, did the Maccabees celebrate for eight days? The Book of Maccabees offers a most surprising suggestion. That year, the Jews had missed the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot, the eight day harvest festival, as the sacrificial altar and Temple had not yet been purified from foreign Hellenist control. The 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev happened to be the third anniversary of the Hellenist takeover of the Temple; this included the obviously offensive sacrifice of pigs and the construction of a statute of Zeus in the holiest chamber of the Temple. The Maccabees decided to rededicate the Temple exactly three years to the date after control had been lost. But what should the rededication ceremony look like?
When Moses had initially presided over the construction of the mishkan, a portable worship center designed for the desert, the initiation ceremony lasted eight days.  When King Solomon first dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, the ceremony lasted eight days and coincided with the celebration of Sukkot (1 Kings 8:66).  Naturally drawing from these earlier models, the Maccabees also intuited that an eight day celebration was in order.
Sukkot has two essential themes.  On the one hand, it is an agricultural harvest festival, a chance to thank God for the food and fruits of the land.  On the other, it is an existential holiday representing God’s presence and protection in the history and lives of the Jewish people. It is for this reason that King Solomon originally chose to dedicate the first Temple on Sukkot, as the point of the building was to serve as a tangible symbol of God’s presence in daily life.
Sukkot was the perfect model for the Maccabee’s celebration of Hanukkah. They had missed Thanksgiving (i.e. Sukkot), and were craving the opportunity to formally express deep gratitude for the gifts they had been blessed with during those most trying war-filled years. At the same time, the themes of Sukkot meshed well with the rededication of a Temple whose presence was meant as a conduit for God’s holy presence in our lives. Therefore, the first Hanukkah was actually Thanksgivukkah, the celebration of Chanukah and Sukkot – the Book of Maccabees tells us that they celebrated exactly as they were accustomed to do on Sukkot.
I’ve lived in Providence for a little more than two years now, and as I reflect on what I’m grateful for this Thanksgivukkah (I really do dislike the term), the people in my life are at the top of the list. Providence embodies a creative and collaborative energy amongst genuinely interesting and interested individuals.  There is an abundance of talent and diversity, but most importantly, genuineness. It’s one of the best “hidden” secrets in the country.  Like the Maccabees during this same season so many years ago, we’re both free yet obliged to create our own rituals of gratitude and construction during this time of transition and rededication. I am truly excited that, working together, we’ll build the edifices that enable us to enhance and sustain community, forming lasting relationships engaged in meaningful endeavors together. I can’t wait to see the variety of lights we can add together; I’m so deeply thankful for that invisible miraculous Spirit gently guiding us forward and the hard work of so many investing wisely, even aggressively, in a bright future.

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