November 21, 2018

The Real Miracle (Chanukah and Thanksgiving, part one)

Thanksgiving and Chanukah part 1

We never said grace before a meal or anything like it my home growing up. When I might eat a meal at friend’s home, I found grace odd. It was not that I did not believe in God; I had not thought about God enough to have a strong opinion on the matter. I just knew that God did not put the food on the table. I remember my dad, who was a socialist-atheist before he became a Democrat and then a Jew, saying something like “God did not put food on the table; a working man did.”  He meant farm workers. As I got older and read and thought more, I added agricultural corporations, big and small, packing companies and workers, truck manufacturers, trucking companies, truck drivers, grocery stores and grocery workers, stockers, cashiers and baggers, etc., etc.,  and my mom. Still no God.

Had the Motzi blessing not been in Hebrew, I might have objected to saying it.  I have real problems with the idea of God’s providence, because if God chooses to provide, then God also chooses not to provide. I find the latter idea objectionable, because a God who chooses not to provide is not a God worthy of serious consideration.

The Motzi on its face is not hard to poke fun at. Quoting Psalm 104:14, we bless God for “bringing bread from the earth” “hamotzi lechem min haaretz”.  Actual loaves of bread?  The ancient rabbis saw the problem as well. In the great Midrash on Genesis (chapter 15:7), the rabbis are arguing about which tree it was that Adam and Even ate from. One says “a wheat tree.”  His companions are perplexed. The rabbi explains: back in Eden, loaves of bread grew on trees that were as big as the Cedars of Lebanon (which is why God said to Adam that he would have to get his bread by the sweat of his brow; before he just picked it from trees).

So when it comes to being thankful for the bounty, etc., I would concede that God creates nature, but then a complex symbiosis of human industry and efficiency comes into play. Am I thankful for the farm workers and the array of small businesses and corporations and their employees, motivated by a free market system to get the most food for the lowest price onto our tables, and for the government agencies that try to regulate all of this? Actually, more impressed (knowing the human proclivity for waste, corruption and venality) that things work out so well, at least in these parts, than thankful.   Yes, I am thankful, but not piously so.

Which brings me to Chanukah. I do feel piously thankful around the military. Before the fall of 1973, the looming event of November was the memory of assasination of President Kennedy in 1963. Three months in Marine Corps boot camp from August to November of 1973  put the birthday of the Marine Corps (10 November 1775) and Battle of Tarawa into my consciousness (sixty years ago  last week – November 20-23, 1943).  We learned Marine Corps history, and the Battle of Tarawa frightened me. The Second Marine Division went up against an impregnable island fortress, whose Japanese commander said it would take a million men a hundred years to conquer. A thousand Marines died in three days taking Tarawa.  They swam, crawled, walked and charged into a firestorm of searing metal. It was made pretty clear to me that if I were ordered that I would be expected to follow that same path.

I never was ordered to follow that path but I know many, both here and in Israel, who were or will be ordered.  I think I know, vicariously, what the decision of the Maccabees to fight felt like. In 167 BCE, a war between Judean farm workers, inter alia, and a professional Syrian Hellenist army seemed unthinkable, and if one did think about, it seemed futile.

For some proud and few Jewish farmers, however, dying in battle to preserve their heritage, even in a losing battle, seemed preferable to whatever the next best thing was. They walked into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And there were enough of them who believed in the mission so deeply that three years later, I think perhaps to their amazement, the Syrian Hellenist army withdrew.

I recommend that people not recount the fable of the oil lasting eight days. It distracts us from the real miracle, a miracle of heart, spirit and vision, the willingness to suffer, and the belief in the righteous of their cause. This should be our focus on Chanukah.

I have met descendants of the Maccabees first hand — Israeli young men, who volunteer for infantry and special units and who are guaranteed that when the rockets flare, that they will be the hammer and the metal on the shield against a ruthless enemy who would kill every last one of us if they get the chance.

Around them, and when I think of them, I feel piously thankful.