Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah - Holiday of Lights and Ambiguity

I miss the Hanukkah I knew when I was young.
I miss the absolute truth I knew about the Maccabees and their fight for religious freedom.
I miss the unalloyed pleasure in lighting the hanukkiyah, singing the brachot and songs, and opening the presents each night.

Why do I miss these long-ago celebrations of Hanukkah?  Because my understanding of this holiday has been impacted by what I have read and learned since those days, and because it is more difficult to unpack complex ideas than to absorb simple ones.

Big Ideas:

  • Hanukkah was about the preservation of Jewish practice according to the halacha as interpreted by a particular group of Jews of the time
  • Violence can be justified if your enemy threatens your existence
  • History is written by the winners
  • Historical context and events have a powerful effect on the way we understand the world
Essential Questions:
  • Who were the Maccabees?  What was their mission?
  • What is a "just war"?
  • How are we like both the Maccabees and the Hellenists in our lives today?
  • How does the story of Hanukkah impact the various ways we understand our Jewishness today?
  • How did such a minor holiday get to be so important to us?
Learning Activities:
  • Read the article in My Jewish Learning about The Maccabee Revolt for a summary of the story of Hanukkah
  • The Jewish Way of War is a brief summary of some of the rules governing war in Jewish tradition
  • The following quotation from President Obama's speech in Oslo is here:
..."The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence...."  You may want to read Obama's entire speech here 
  • Gary Rosenblatt has written a thought-provoking article about today's Maccabees
  • Yosef Yerushalmi, a leading Jewish historian who died recently, suggested the following:

" ... Zakhor, still Yerushalmi’s best-known book, contrasts the study of history—in which the historian first marshals the facts, then interprets what they mean—with collective memory, in which the meaning of the story precedes and determines the events related. Yerushalmi argued that before the modern era, memory structured the stories Jews told about themselves. ..."
  • The Eighth Day is an excellent trigger for a conversation about tradition and change in the context of the era of the Maccabees.  It is available from Ergo Media
  • Finally, The Jewish Week has a special section it calls Text Context and the articles are a valuable aid to understanding what it means to be Jewish in America (and Israel) and how Hanukkah became what it is to us today.
Such a lot to read about what I already described as a minor holiday.  I can only suggest you read what you have time to read, and think about the issues the articles raise.  I am confident that you will look at Hanukkah differently, but please continue to enjoy the lights, the brachot, the songs and the presents.

Monday, December 7, 2009

VaYeshev, Part II

He was groomed for his role from early childhood, doted on by his father and prepared for the future in many ways.  He was good at what he did, and focused on what was ahead.  He even dreamed about it.

As an adult he achieved fame and wealth, as well as the attention of at least one woman (probably more) who - for whatever reason - was attracted to him.  Was it his position?  His looks?  His proficiency at his task?

How could one not talk about Tiger Woods in connection to this week's parasha!?!  I have heard the opinion that for a person in his position it is impossible to resist the temptations all around him.  Money, power, fame - all strong attractants, it seems, to groupies.  Is it even possible to keep track of all the famous men who have - just within the past year - been exposed as "players"?

How did Yosef resist the temptations that these men gave in to?  Did he understand that his role was too important to jeopardize with a personal scandal?

Is this why we call him Yosef HaTzadik - Yosef the Righteous?

I have it on good authority that sixth graders are quite familiar with the current saga of Tiger Woods, so I would not hesitate to use the story as a trigger for discussion of this week's parasha.

Does Tiger Woods need a lesson on Jewish values?
And by the way - what would be appropriate teshuva for these public figures?


The stories of Yosef, well-known and often-retold in religious school classrooms, contain more detailed narration than any other of the stories of B'reisheet.  There is more description of peoples' feelings than anywhere else.

A few thoughts:

  1. The brothers of Yosef seem to have little love or affection for their "baby" brother.  What is it about the family dynamics that leads to their actions?  Who do you hold responsible for the situation?  Whose responsibility do you think it was to improve the situation?  Explain your answer.
  2. What do you think we are supposed to learn from the encounter Yosef has with the "man" when he is looking for his brothers?  What does the story tell us if the "man" is simply a man?  What if the "man" is actually God's messenger?  
  3. Where do you think Reuven was when the brothers decided to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites?  Whose idea was it to do this?
  4. Does Reuven seem to know what has actually happened to Yosef?  Does your answer to this question affect how you feel about him?
  5. Skipping over (for the moment) the story of Yehudah and Tamar, what are your thoughts about Yosef's behavior in the house of Potifar?
  6. What kind of person do you understand Yosef to be from what we read in this week's parasha?  If you didn't know what comes next, what might you imagine at this point?
  7. Back to Yehudah and Tamar - what is this story doing here?  How can you connect it to the story of Yosef?  To the bigger story of the development of the Jewish people?
Some interesting commentaries that may help you shape your thoughts:
  • God Was In That Text
  • G-dcast - take a look, click on and read the lyrics, and note how much is not in the original Torah text.  What do you think about adding this additional material?  Does it change the story?  Does it make it clearer?  Does it confuse the issues?  Explain your response.
  • Divine and Human "Nudging"on the Path of One's Destiny is written by Jill Minkoff, a student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  What is the tension between "destiny" and "free will" that she describes?  How can you know if your decisions are the decisions God would want you to make?  What is "bashert"?