The Jewish calendar has always been, in my mind, one of the most brilliant aspects of our tradition and at the same time, one of the most confusing. Based originally on a lunar calendar, the Jewish system of tracking the days, months, and years has evolved to become a hybrid of following both the moon and the son (luni-solar). And while it’s definitely worth the intellectual exercise to understand why the next time the first day of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will overlap won’t be for another 79,000 plus years, I think that the spiritual intersection between the holiday of gratitude and the festival of lights might be even more compelling.
Each year when we celebrate Hanukkah, Jewish tradition calls on us to display the Hanukkiyah (8-branch menorah) in our windows as a way of pirsumei nissa, publicizing the miracle. What miracle you might ask? As the rabbis’ of the Talmud note in Tractate Shabbat, the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days when only one jug of oil was found in the Temple. But more specifically, the fact that our ancestors were able to, despite all odds, withstand the attack by the Syrian-Greeks. Even though we were in the minority, our Jewish brothers and sisters were able to prevail against the Greeks and rededicate the Temple, enabling us to continue practicing as Jews.
Jumping ahead more than two millennia, in the 21st century, Thanksgiving has taken on a life of its own. Filled with beautiful traditions, people gather to not only enjoy an amazing meal, but more importantly, to express gratitude and thanks for the gifts of family, friends, and the comforts and protections we have in life: the clothing on our back, the food on our plate, and the fortune of certain rights that others in our world are still yearning and fighting for.
This year, as Hanukkah and Thanksgiving cross paths for the first time since 1861, which was two years before Thanksgiving was officially established by President Abraham Lincoln, I think that we can draw new inspiration from the confluence of these two holidays. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once wrote that part of growing up requires that we learn about how to share our love. He says, “Is this not the great childhood problem—and therefore the great human problem: to learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you? That I have a stake in their love. That I get more when others give to others.”
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights because it helps to illuminate for us as individuals and for us as a community the ability to see beauty and possibility in the world. Thanksgiving, then, is the opportunity, once our eyes have been opened, to express our thanks, our appreciation, and our gratitude for all that we have, while at the same time, developing a new awareness of all that there is left to do in the world. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are not an end, but rather, a beginning. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah help us realize that we need to share our love with the world.
As we remember how our ancestors were able to bring brightness to the world in a time of darkness, so too may we be reminded this holiday season that we have the potential to help bring light to those around us through our actions, through kindness, and through love. In doing so, not only will we have a lot to be thankful for, but hopefully, we will be inspired to continue to bring that love, joy, light and peace, to all of humanity. Now, that’s something definitely worth our gratitude.
Happy Thanksgivukkah—May your Menurky shine brightly!
Rabbi Corey Helfand