Shaarei Shamayim

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CHANUKAH - MIKETZ 5779

CHANUKAH - MIKETZ 5779

Last week I spoke about human angels—anonymous people who suddenly appear in our lives at the right time to help us, who transcend their own souls to become someone’s angel. Today I’d like to speak about heroes—those we look up to who inspire us.  

When you were kids, who were your heroes? I remember dressing up in my cowboy outfit pretending to be the Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy. Sometimes I would tie a towel around my neck and I’d be Superman. On Chanukah I would be Judah Maccabee. It’s great for kids to have heroes to look up to—heroes that stand for the values of goodness and decency.

Who are our heroes today? My friend and colleague Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg writes about Taylor Swift—one of the leading recording artists and song writers of our time. She’s all of 29 and in 2016 she made $80 million—which I don’t make in 10 years! She’s one of the bestselling music artists of all time, having sold more than 40 million albums—a lot more than the sales of my book! Taylor has 112 million followers on Instagram. Before this year’s election she endorsed 2 candidates in her native Tennessee and told her followers to register and vote. The next day 65,000 people registered!

Now what’s Taylor Swift got that I don’t have? Why do people follow her advice when it comes to politics? She only has a high school education. 10 years ago she got into a fight with Kanye West at the MTV Video Music Awards when he interrupted her acceptance speech saying Beyoncé deserved her award. The feud has gone back and forth ever since. This year Kanye supported Donald Trump and Taylor Swift didn’t. Millions of people take the political opinions of people like this seriously?! Is this what our “hero” worship has come to?

We have always worshipped celebrities for their exceptional achievements in sports and the arts. But taking their advice? I’m reminded of the words Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson who spoke in regard to being a role model for children: “I wan all dem kids to do what I do, to look up to me. I wan’ all dem kids to copulate me.”

Taylor Swift ranks 9th in popularity on Instagram. Who are the more popular ones? Such distinguished people of letters like Selina Gomez, Ariana Grande, Kylie Jenner and of course—one of the great thinkers of our time—Kim Kardashian! We would do well to remember the words of football commentator and former quarterback, Joe Theisman, who said: “Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein!” Norman Einstein?! It’s Albert Einstein, of course. That’s what happens when we put people like this on pedestals, making them worthy of emulation.

Judaism never bought into this mindset. Think about our holidays. Christian holidays focus on people—on Jesus, his birth and resurrection. Many American holidays also focus on people like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. But not Judaism! We don’t focus on people…we focus on ideas—like judgment and forgiveness for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, gratitude and revelation for Sukkot and Shavuot, and religious liberty and freedom for Passover and Chanukah. For Chanukah the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) ask the strangest question: Mai Chanukah (What is Chanukah?)

What kind of question is that? Talmud never asks: What is Pesach? It has a whole tractate that tells us what Pesach is. The Talmud never asks: What is Sukkot or Purim or any other holiday. And perhaps even stranger is the answer: “When the Greeks entered the temple they defiled all the oils that were in it and when the Hasmonean Dynasty triumphed and defeated the Syrian/Greeks, they searched but found only one container of oil which had been laid aside with the seal of the High Priest. There was only enough oil in it to light for one day. A miracle occurred and they lit with it for 8 days.”

That’s it??? What about Mattathias and Judah the Maccabee, and the war against Antiochus? What about the stirring story of the Maccabean revolt—a small group of Jews who stood up to and defeated the mightiest army on earth? The truth is our rabbis didn’t like making the Maccabees into heroes because you know what happened? They eventually turned on each other, became corrupt, brought strange practices into the Temple and tried to take power that wasn’t theirs. Did you know that there is a statue of Judah the Maccabee at West Point? Probably not, because Judaism understood that making individuals into heroic figures would only lead to disappointment. 

Does that mean that Judaism doesn’t have heroic figures? Sure it does, but they’re not-so-public figures who may not be able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” but who make an incredible difference in our lives. We have one in the Chanukah story—the one who was responsible for the miracle of Chanukah. Do you know his name? Neither do I. Do you know who I have in mind? That unknown priest, who, when the Temple was defiled by the Syrian/Greeks hid a jar of oil for future use when Gd will save his people. He had an unshakeable faith that there would be a redemption —a cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple. No, he’s not one of our people’s famous heroes. He’s just one of the countless little guys who made Jewish survival possible.

When you think about it, we have a lot of people like this today. They’re the 1.5 million soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. Some of them referred to as “lone soldiers” because they have no family in Israel. Who are they? We do know someone who was one of them—Jonathan Schulman, son of Alan and Roseanne. He was sent by Israel to work with AIPAC defending Israel in America. But the rest, who knows? But they are our heroes!

Let me give you a Chanukah example. A young Austrian—thoroughly assimilated Jewish writer—invited the Chief Rabbi of Vienna over to his house one December evening to discuss a wild and crazy idea. On entering the home, the writer asked the Rabbi if he would like to join them for the lighting. Since it was Chanukah, the Rabbi was delighted, but on entering the family room he was shocked to see the writer and his family about to light a Christmas tree!!! It was Christmas Eve. The Rabbi took the writer aside and had a long discussion about Judaism and convinced him to light a Menorah instead. This young Austrian writer was Theodore Herzl!

This little known vignette with the Rabbi had a tremendous impact on Herzl’s life. What was Herzl’s wild and crazy idea? Zionism—the return of Jews after 2,000 years to sovereignty in their homeland! This was spurred on by the horrific Dreyfus trial where Herzl was a reporter. Herzl had thought the answer to anti-Semitism was conversion to Christianity, but the trial convinced him that hatred of Jews was so pervasive that not even conversion would stop it. Herzl then declared that there could be no return to Zion without a return to Judaism. We all know Theodore Herzl’s name but what’s the name of that Viennese Rabbi? 

George H. W. Bush—the 41st president whose funeral was this week—was no fan of Donald Trump. At the beginning of the primaries Trump came down hard on his son Jeb who was favored to win. In fact, Bush 41 voted for Hillary Clinton! As a past president, he was invited to Trump’s inauguration. Both he and his wife Barbara were then in the hospital. Say what you want about George Bush Sr. He’s one classy guy. He sent this letter to Donald Trump:

Dear Donald,

Barbara and I are so sorry we can’t be there for your Inauguration on January 20th. My doctor says if I sit outside in January, it likely will put me 6 ft. under. Same for Barbara. So I guess we’re stuck in Texas. But we will be with you and the country in spirit. I want you to know that I wish you the very best as you begin this incredible journey of leading our great country. If I can ever be of help, please let me know.

Now I’m no fan of George Bush Sr. When he was president he gave Israel such a hard time. But this gracious message to Donald Trump—whom he didn’t vote for—sends a message we all need to hear today: We are all Americans, so let’s treat each other—regardless of who voted for whom—with graciousness, civility and kindness. In this sense George H. W. Bush was a hero.   

We live in an age when so many of our public heroes have betrayed us, but the consolation is that there are plenty of not-so-public heroes—people who will probably never be famous, but who make all the difference. People like the teachers who teach our kids; those who coach little league; the volunteers in our shul and other worthy organizations; and those, who despite their own challenges, reach out to others with acts of chessed (kindness) and love.

These are the real heroes of our time. No, they may not make the same contributions as a Norman Einstein, but they bring the light of Gd—as represented by the Chanukah menorah—into our world. Who are your heroes? Be sure to let them know. Amen!

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