From the Rabbi's Desk November 2017

Rabbi Carla Freedman

Some think of it as the holiday season. Others think of it as the gift-giving/receiving season. For some there are spiritual resonances. For others, it is all about family.

But they are all wrong. This "holiday season" is now nothing but commercial. It is all about merchants making about 60% of their annual profit in the final eight weeks of the calendar year. The number of catalogs arriving daily at our house is astonishing. The "pre-holiday" sales flyers weigh down the Sunday newspapers. The advertising on television goes into overdrive to persuade us to buy more, bigger, expensive gifts for those we love, the implication being that a lesser gift would convey less love. Kids start asking for (lobbying for?) specific items advertised on television, expecting that all their friends will get them, and if our kids don’t, they will be rejected by their peers. And of course, there is "Black Friday"…the day after Thanksgiving, with some stores opening at midnight on Thursday, to get their bottom line into the black (and now there are stores open all day on Thanksgiv-ing…nothing is sacred except money).

I have for years said that Chanukah is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, because it is about events that took place after the Torah was completed (regardless of your understanding of how we got the Torah, by 167 BCE and the adventures of the Maccabees, the Torah as we know it was complete), and therefore is not mentioned in the Torah. Thus it contains no days on which work is prohibited, except for the Shabbat which inevitably falls during Chanukah (sometimes there are two such Shabbatot, when Chanukah begins and ends on Shabbat). Purim, which is also about events that happened after the Torah was completed, is another occasion when work is not prohibited…unless it coincides with Shabbat.

The famous adoption of Santa Claus by Coca Cola in 1923 probably contributed hugely to the commerciali-zation of the season, though it did not begin the process. And for a long time, marketers seemed not to no-tice that their Jewish audience was largely immune to the advertising and the spending that it begot. Then little touches entered the advertising, aimed at us…a lit menorah in the background, or a spinning dreidl amidst the presents. While shopping in grocery stores, where the "holiday muzak" played endlessly from Thanksgiving onward, we gradually became aware of a musical version of Oy Chanukah added to the mix, or even I Have a Little Dreidl.

School holiday concerts, inescapable as they are, also began to incorporate some Chanukah music and/or imagery. This was supposed to make our kids feel comfortable and included. Parents began to visit their kids’ schools to serve up latkes and teach everyone how to play dreidl. The eight days of Chanukah became eight days for presents. WE WERE HAD!

So I issue my annual challenge: celebrate Chanukah on its own terms. We play down the military aspect of the occasion, and celebrate a season of light at the darkest time of the year. Consider this way to spread the light of Chanukah: set aside one can or package of non-perishable food for each day of candle lighting, to bring some light and joy to a family less fortunate this holiday season. Make this your holiday mitzvah, and get the food to a food pantry as soon as Chanukah ends. You will make your holiday and theirs more meaningful and satisfying.