September 18, 2019

How to Be Chanukah Holy

As a Jewish kid growing up in Omaha, Neb., I was engulfed by Christmas. We were the only house on the block without decorations, my public school had a Christmas tree in the lobby, and the airwaves and shopping malls were filled with Christmas music. I have to admit — those Christmas songs were pretty catchy; some of them were downright beautiful. I mean, really. Compare “Little Drummer Boy” with “I Had a Little Dreidle”? No contest. I know a lot of Jewish educators and rabbis of a certain age who are closet carolers.

One of my favorite hymns: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of the founder of the Methodist church, the words were eventually adapted to music by Felix Mendelssohn, a German composer, born into a Jewish family. Who knew? The song talks of angels proclaiming the arrival of a messiah, a messiah Jews don’t believe in.

Actually, we have a hymn in our liturgy that is quite similar to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It’s not a Chanukah song; it’s a prayer — the Kedushah. In the Shabbat Musaf version, we sing:

“We revere and hallow You on earth as Your name is hallowed in heaven, where it is sung by celestial choirs in Your prophet’s vision. The angels called one to another: Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Adonai Tzeva’ot, m’lo khol ha-aretz k’vodo — Holy, holy, holy is Adonai Tzeva’ot. God’s Presence fills all the earth.”

The moment of singing “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” is accentuated by a choreography that is, for me, one of the highlights of Jewish worship. Each time the word “kadosh” is said, we rise on the balls of our feet, heels off the ground. Why? Because we are reminding ourselves that we are called upon to be higher than mammals, to aspire to be a little like the angels, God’s partners on earth. When I was a child, no one in our Conservative synagogue did this. Today, in nearly every synagogue I’ve visited, across the denominations, most people have embraced this little dance of holiness.

Chanukah is a good time to rededicate ourselves to the idea that we can be earth angels. In my book “God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth,” I recalled that Abraham Joshua Heschel titled his masterpiece “God in Search of Man.” When I read the book as a teenager, I thought: “Doesn’t he have it backward? Isn’t religion all about human beings searching for God?” No, Heschel taught, God is looking for us to be God’s eyes and ears, hands and feet and, most of all, God’s heart. Doesn’t God have the angels to help out? God doesn’t depend on angels; God depends on you to be an angel.

The question is: How? How can I rise up and be God’s partner on earth?

The answer is found in the Torah: “Kedoshim ti’hiyu, ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem” — “be holy, since I, your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). In other words, be like God. Figure out what God does, and then you do it. Each of us is created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the “image” of God. We have the spark of divinity in us. The way to ignite it is to emulate God’s middot, God’s characteristics.

Here’s an idea for a Chanukah celebration. As you light each night’s candle, dedicate yourself to being an angel by following God’s example. Look to the Torah as your guide. For example, the first thing God does is create — “When God began to create …” If God is creative, you can be creative. Use your God-given gift of creativity to fashion a first-night Chanukah gift that is not store-bought. Paint, photograph, post a YouTube video, compose a poem, write a tribute, bake cupcakes.

On the second night, emulate the second thing God does in the Torah: bless. God blesses the animals, human beings and the Shabbat. If God can bless, you can bless. Hang a string over your Chanukah celebration center, cut out eight dreidle-shaped pieces of construction paper, and ask family members or friends to dedicate each night to a “blessing” in their lives. Hang each night’s “blessing dreidle” on the string after you light the chanukiyah.

The third thing God does in the Torah? God rests. If God had to take a day off, shouldn’t you? This year, the third night of Chanukah falls on Shabbat, so put away your cell phone, turn off the computer, and give yourself a break.

We are called to be repair people — l’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai — to repair the world to bring God’s presence. So, on the fourth night, take some latkes or sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) to a homeless shelter.

Check out other ways to be an angel in “God’s To-Do List,” and rededicate yourself this Chanukah to being God’s partner on earth.

Happy Chanukah!

Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, co-president of Synagogue 3000, and author of “God’s To-Do List” and “Chanukah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration” (both Jewish Lights).