Lincoln and the Maccabees

Abraham Lincoln was the first to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday, almost exactly 150 years ago. Thanksgiving had been celebrated in some communities in America since 1607, but Lincoln was the first to make it a holiday for the nation itself.

The language of the declaration, written for Lincoln by Secretary of State William Seward, is powerful and poetic. It said, “And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, … commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Lincoln did not wait for the end of the Civil War to offer gratitude and ask for kindness toward those in need on both sides. He delivered it in the middle of a war that would continue for another year and a half.

The story of Chanukah takes place in the middle of the war, not the end. It celebrates the Maccabees reclaiming and rededicating the Holy Temple, but the war for independence took another dozen years.

According to the first book of Maccabees, which was written around the time of the Chanukah story in the 2nd century BCE, The Maccabees declared eight days of thanksgiving, even though one would have been fine. Maybe the oil lasted for eight days because they were willing to celebrate those eight days. The celebration was giving thanks for getting the Temple back and for being able to resume their full lives as Jews.

There are only two mitzvot, two commandments, on Chanukah. The first is to light the lights, and if possible place them so people outside can see them. Even in the darkness moments of our lives it is possible to find light and goodness and share that with the world.

The other is to give thanks. Thanks for everything, for the good things, and for the opportunity to help fix the bad, and gratitude for all those who struggled and gave their lives so we could be free.

This is what Lincoln meant in his dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg almost exactly 150 years ago, too.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This is the spirit of the Maccabees.

The struggle is never over. The world is still a dangerous mess. If we wait for everything to be settled and perfect before we celebrate we never will. The celebration must include gratitude for our lives and dedication to making the world better.

We have shown the ability to celebrate during times of grief and chaos, and to still remember who we are, both our identity and our values as Jews.

What we as a people can do is remind the world that it is always possible to still be fully human, and that goodness can be found in unlikely places. And that it is our responsibility to help others live lives they can be grateful for, and to help protect the world from those who want to destroy everybody’s liberty.

If we do so, then we, as Lincoln said, shall not perish from this Earth.

Whose dreams do we want our children to have? Thoughts on Jacob and a coat

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is probably the most famous musical based on the Hebrew Bible.  It might be the only one, though I would love to see what Sir Andrew could do with Leviticus. The songs in “Joseph” were delightful.  The story was fun. Even Donny Osmond was perfect (maybe because he has so many siblings). The only problem with the story is that the biblical Joseph never had a coat of many colors.  Jacob gave him a Ketonet Passim, according to the Midrash a special long-sleeved or delicate coat; a coat not necessarily colorful, but highly symbolic.

In Biblical times, such a coat seemed to be a sign of tribal leadership.  Joseph’s brothers were not upset that their father gave Joseph a fancy coat.  They were upset that Jacob wanted to make Joseph, the youngest brother, the head of the tribe, bypassing the normal order of tribal succession.  Within a short time of receiving this coat, Joseph begins to dream that he is superior to both his brothers, and then his parents. It is small wonder that Joseph’s brothers try to get rid of him.

I have often wondered if Joseph would have had these same dreams had his father not given him the coat of leadership.  The coat itself seemed to cause Joseph’s dreams, dreams that got him into a great deal of trouble.  Jacob, in a sense, gave Joseph dreams that Joseph was not able to handle.  Joseph spent the next twenty years of his life recovering from his father’s plans.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own dreams. I see so many situations in which the parents are trying to live out their own lives through their children. Maybe they did not have the business or athletic success they would have liked, and so try to have their children make up for it. Sometimes the parents in fact did have great success and believe that their children, with enough effort, can be just as successful. If the child has different plans, this can lead to great stress and tension on the relationship, even if everyone really has the best of intentions.

If we cause dreams that cannot be lived up to, we risk inflicting a great deal of harm on our loved ones.  As Bruce Springsteen sang in “The River”, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t’ come true/ or is it something worse?”  We have to ask ourselves what kind of dreams we are giving to others.  Do we make them feel safe and secure?  Do we give them appropriate levels of responsibility?  Are we generous and kind to those who may not be our favorites?  Do we have reasonable career and financial expectations of our loved ones?  If we cannot answer these questions with a yes, we may be causing nightmares instead of nurturing dreams.

Let us try to make sure the dreams we give our loved ones bring them comfort and peace of mind.

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