Hanukkah is that Jewish Christmas with the candles on the menorah, commemorating a time when some oil lasted for eight days. And Adam Sandler has a song about it.
With that mainstream read on the holiday, Hanukkah sounds a bit like a dud compared to the commercial insanity of modern-day Christmas. No surprise, but if you do a little digging into the holiday, you find out quite quickly that it’s a fascinating holiday both because of the history of Hanukkah and the story of Hanukkah in the Book of Maccabees.
With his brother Esau feeling stabby, Jacob leaves Beer-sheba and sets out for Haran at the beginning of Parsha Vayetzei. At night, he dreams “a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.'”
Genesis God seems really keen on reminding Abraham and his descendants, “Hey, I got you. I got your back.”
Parsha Toldot gives us the story of Isaac––a man who lives a comparatively simple life (at least, when you think of the Jewish patriarchs before him). His life really slowed down after his father, Abraham, tried to kill him. It’s hard to top God intervening in your impending death.
So the story of Isaac revolves mostly around his twin children, Esau and Jacob. These two rugrats come onto the scene after Isaac “pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren.”
Parsha Chayei Sara, to me, isn’t as interesting in the Torah as it is when thinking about it from a contemporary context. The Parsha starts off with the death of Sarah, the matriarch of the Jewish people, and Abraham purchases a choice piece of land in Hebron to lay his wife to rest. He too, after re-marrying and continuing to be fruitful and multiply, is said to have been buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs (which sounds like the title of an Indiana Jones movie)––alongside his first wife, Sarah.
Hebron lies within the Palestinian West Bank (or Judaea and Samaria, the region’s biblical names used within Israel). You can imagine, folks on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have strong feelings about this cave. The Cave is the second holiest site in Judaism (just behind the Western or Wailing Wall).
We jump right back in where we basically left off with Abraham (formerly Abram) and Sarah (formerly Sarai). God tells Abraham He’s going to come back in a year and by then Sarah will have a son. The Biblical pair aren’t so sure about that, seeing as they’re now “advanced in years” and Sarah had “stopped having the periods of women.”
Sarah even laughed at the idea that she could have a child in her old age. God isn’t a fan of Sarah doubting Him and gets a bit catty.
“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
And so begins Parsha Lech-Lecha. I love this line. I’m not sure I can fully articulate why. But I’ll try.
The words “Lecha-Lecha” (or “go forth”) struck me when I first started dabbling with Judaism and listened to Jew Oughta Know’s episode on this story. Perhaps it’s because I’ve felt at home being the stranger. First in Costa Rica and now in Germany. It’s a sentiment first put into words when my then-boss took me out to lunch on my first day of work in Düsseldorf. So, this idea that there’s a land for you or for me that’s not necessarily the land in which we were born resonates with me. Germany, in this period of time, often feels like the place for me. I mean, they have a word––Backpfeifengesicht––for someone who has a face that needs to get so hard, it whistles from the impact.
We pick up this week’s Parsha right where we left off––with Noah. This is the Noah you know from the flood story with the animals and the rain and the blotting out of life from the face of the earth. But Noah and his line were saved because “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in age; Noah walked with God.”
Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Bereshit, Genesis 1:1 – 6:8.
I can’t read Genesis and not hear the hypnotic, monotone cry of “SEGA” followed by the sound of rings, 16-bit music, and the visual of Sonic the Hedgehog popping onto the screen––wagging his finger as you prepare to journey through Emerald Island and, I think, free a bunch of animals from a sadistic mad scientist shaped like an egg with a long, frayed orange mustache slapped on his face. Oh, and get emeralds. If you don’t get the emeralds, it’s all for naught.
This was the only Genesis I was familiar with as a child. There’s a more famous incarnation, and it begins not entirely unlike when I’d fire on my Sega Genesis, the dark screen flashing to a blank canvas of light.