Rabbinic Reflections: Making rituals work

Do I use it? Do I merely display it? Or do I return it? Just ahead of this year's Chanukah celebration — the holiday begins on Tuesday night, Dec. 12 — my father sent my family an imposing chanukiyah (the menorah used for Chanukah candle lighting). We already have a sizeable love-themed chanukiyah given to my wife and me as a wedding gift. We also have one we often use that I remember my mother lighting and then as we aged, my sister and I lit. We have one that each of our older children built at some point in their early Jewish education. Not to mention the chanukiyot (more than one) we have on display or in storage including the travel chanukiyah my wife and I used on our honeymoon and the menurkey (turkey-shaped chanukiyah) from the year Chanukah and Thanksgiving coincided. With all of these, why add another?

Stories, that's why. This new chanukiyah allows me to tell my children a story, a story that matters to me. That is why they light the one they made. That is why we choose one that means something to us. The ones we do not light are also stories: stories of other times and meanings, stories of a family's interest in art or history, stories of engagement with Jewish ritual through the ages.

In our busy lives, it is too easy just to light the candles and move on. The chanukiyah, even a disposable tin one, begs us to tell a story. Of course, we might tell the story of Chanukah, of the Maccabees' small band of rebels fighting for religious freedom against a mighty Syrian-Greek army with elephants, and of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight nights when the temple in Jerusalem was rededicated. Just as in the story of Mattathias's defense of the sacred altar in Modiin, the story we should really tell is why we personally are lighting candles.

Our answers may vary from night to night and from year to year. Our answers will vary over the cycles of our lives. Our answers may be straightforward: because that is the tradition. Our answers may be metaphorical: to banish the dark cloud hanging over our society. Our answers make the ritual do the work of adding meaning to the moment.

A chanukiyah is a reminder that rituals should have meaning now, not just based on the time of the origin of the ritual. In fact, the second blessing we recite when lighting Chanukah candles explicitly thanks God for the miracles "in those days and in this time." By including an artifact in our ritual, we invite the stories and the meanings of when and why it joined our ritual and how it continues to add meaning today. I want to tell the story of how my father's gift joined our ritual and in future years to remember this year's meaning. For that, I can add one more chanukiyah.

Chanukah translates as "dedication." The Maccabees dedicated the temple in ritually significant ways. The chanukiyah reminds us to find significance, not just in Chanukah but also in every dedication. Let us use this year's light and the bearers of it as a reminder to make every ritual tell a story of "those days and in this time." May "this time" be blessed with stories that bind us to each other, to our histories, and to our common humanity, and may we continue to make rituals do that life-affirming work.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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