I have fond childhood memories of Thanksgiving. I can’t quite remember what was on the annual menu, but I do remember the feelings of familial warmth and cohesion. In the midst of the manic pace of life, the last Thursday in November offered us the opportunity to catch up and enjoy each other’s company.
I remember that Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who was known for his lengthy classes, would begin teaching earlier on Thanksgiving to allow his students the opportunity to spend quality time with their families. In many ways, Thanksgiving has become an important anchor in familial connection for Jews and non-Jews alike.
American Jewry is abuzz with excitement surrounding a calendrical anomaly that has not occurred since 1861 and will not occur again in our lifetimes — the marriage of Chanukah and Thanksgiving. This family-time extravaganza is already known by many as Thanksgivukkah.
I, for one, am very excited. The connection between the two holidays is more profound than you might imagine.
On Chanukah, we commemorate and celebrate our military victory over the Greeks and the cruse of oil lasting eight days. Although we mention the military victory in our prayers, it is the kindling of the menorah that today defines our observance of this holiday.
No one will dispute the awesomeness of the supernatural display of one day’s supply of oil burning for eight, but it was the military victory that secured our future. Still, the oil takes center stage. Why?
The Talmud (Shabbos 21b) explains that after defeating the Syrian Greek army, the Maccabees returned to the Temple to find it in total disarray. The altar had been used for idolatrous service; the golden utensils were gone. The Maccabees knew they had to do something to ignite the flame within the hearts of their Jewish brothers and sisters, so they began to look for oil. They found only one small jug with the seal of the High Priest (indicating its ritual purity).
They had to make a momentous decision: To light the menorah or not to light the menorah?
On the one hand, it didn’t make much sense to start a process they would be unable to complete. There was clearly not enough oil to keep the menorah burning. And even if they kindled the menorah, it would be a week until they could secure additional ritually pure oil. Perhaps, it would have been better to wait and inaugurate the menorah service properly a week later.
On the other hand, the Maccabees realized there was an opportunity, no matter how imperfect the opportunity really was. It was an opportunity to infuse light, and they grabbed it. They kindled the menorah, and God helped them make history.
The menorah has become Chanu-kah’s dominant theme because it reminds us to take advantage of opportunities. Don’t wait for the perfect moment; make the current moment perfect.
Abraham Lincoln was thinking like a Maccabee when he re-established Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving observances and celebrations date back to the 1500s. But in 1863, just two years after Chanukah coincided with Thanksgiving (the last such occurrence), President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a legal holiday.
The Civil War was raging, and Lincoln penned a special Thanksgiving proclamation:
“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict. … I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
In the midst of a brutal war, Lincoln reminded us we must take the opportunity to thank God for all that is good.
Like Lincoln, let us find our inner Maccabee and seize the moments when they present themselves. Let us honor the tradition of this great country and remember to thank God even during challenging times.
Rabbi Shmuel Silber is the spiritual leader of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim and founder and dean of the Institute for Jewish Continuity.