By Rabbi Baruch HaLevi
How can we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah together?
As everybody seems to know at this point, we are witnessing, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime event unfold on the Jewish calendar with the overlap of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. At first glance it would seem that these holidays are as far apart in theme as they normally are on the calendar. However, as bizarre as it is to experience them at the same time, and at the same feast nonetheless, it’s actually a wonderful realization that they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are necessary opposites that complement—not contradict—one another.
Hanukkah, contrary to popular understanding, doesn’t celebrate “oneness” or “sameness,” but rather celebrates our unique, distinct Jewish identity. Being separate, being distinct and being different isn’t something to shun. On the contrary, it’s something worthy of celebration. After all, isn’t this what we try to instill within our children—not to be like everyone else, not to blend in, not to go along with the crowd? Instead we charge them to stand up for themselves, stand out and be themselves even if, and especially if, that means being different. Hanukkah is a reminder that our unique identity, both collectively as the Jewish people and individually as Jews, is something to literally “dedicate” our lives to preserving and celebrating.
Thanksgiving, however, is a holiday reminding us that beyond our distinctions and differences, we are one; Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Atheist, suburbanite or urbanite, red state, blue state, white, brown or black skin, regardless of what divides us, our States are United, our stories all converge, and ultimately we are one.
So which is it? Are we Jews or are we Americans? Are we individuals or are we a collective? Are we separate or are we united? The answer to all of these is, of course, in Jewish fashion, elu v’elu—yes and yes. In the words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).
To be in a relationship, any relationship, we need a sense of self. A healthy marriage isn’t two halves merging to become one whole. Rather, we need a sense of uniqueness, of distinctness, of individuality, to be whole. To run around doing tikkun olam (fixing the world) without first doing tikkun nefesh (fixing ourselves) is a guaranteed recipe for falling apart.
And yet, if we are only individuals, only in it for ourselves, by ourselves, we will never be whole. Indeed, there is a great big “olam” out there to be a part of as well as to fix. We need to merge our lives with others, join our stories with brothers and sisters, and unite our states: West Coast, East Coast and, yes, to the New Yorkers, there are states in the middle too.
So put on your yarmulke ‘cause here comes Hanukkah—a time to celebrate our uniqueness, separations and individuality as we pass the latkes. But it’s also a time to pass the turkey and the gravy as we celebrate our oneness and universality. Life is not either/or; identity is not one or the other. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are here, now. If not now, when? In 70,000 years, that’s when! So enjoy the turkey-latke killer combo. It’s a first and it’s a last.
Rabbi Baruch HaLevi is the rabbi at Congregation Shirat Hayam, a Conservative synagogue in Swampscott.
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