The American Jewish community is excited -- Hanukkah and Thanksgiving coincide this year. The first menorah candles will be lit Nov. 27, the evening before Thanksgiving Day.
Some people have gone so far as to call this day Thanksgivukkah, which is refreshing because the Jewish community won't have to contend with the perennial Hanukkah/Christmas references that tend to create more competition than unity. The stories of Hanukkah and Christmas have nothing to do with each other, of course, but it's about the feeling of inclusion in American culture during the winter solstice.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, no one religion dominates the character of the holiday. But this day should receive a lot more serious attention. After all, we are living in times when unity in this country sometimes feels unattainable.
Most in the Jewish community can see a connection between the underlying themes of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. The root of the word "Hanukkah" means to educate and dedicate, referring to the Maccabean revolt in 163 B.C. when the Jewish army retook the ancient city of Jerusalem from the Seleucid Greeks and rededicated the menorah, a seven-pronged candelabra that stood in the Holy of Holies inside the temple.
The legend says the oil to light the menorah lasted eight days rather than one. This is what led later generations to teach that national and individual renewal would be the basis of Hanukkah. Surely the people of those days expressed their gratitude to the nation and to God.
The early settlers in America saw themselves as the true descendants of ancient Israel -- America was their Promised Land. They, too, had to rededicate themselves to building a new life in America, breaking away from the religious tyranny of the Old World in Europe. That they were able to sit down at the table with the Indians is a sign that we are supposed to teach our children about tolerance and transcending old-fashioned stereotypes and prejudice. We are supposed to see our common legacy as Americans and rededicate ourselves toward work and providing a bounty that belongs to anyone who works hard and is honest.
The Jewish people have a holiday that connects Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. It is called Sukkot -- which means "booths" -- and it is celebrated in the early fall. The biblical Israelites, who worked the fields in their own homeland and in other nations, constructed booths in which they lived and took their meals. They stared up through the palm branches that covered the booths and saw the stars at night, imagining that they were slaves back in ancient Egypt. In the Second Book of the Maccabees, after the Jews cleaned up the temple in Jerusalem, it is written, "They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles."
The idea that the Israelites were compelled to offer thanks to God for the bounty of their labor during the fall harvest begins to lay the foundation of Thanksgiving after the Biblical tradition of Sukkot as part of the ethos of the earliest Americans.
All this is to say that Hanukkah is an easier fit into the Thanksgiving holiday season because it shares underlying values of spiritual renewal and appreciation for rededicating ourselves to the task of our national and spiritual lives.
Thanksgiving was established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 when the nation was engaged in a Civil War. The nation was in bitter conflict, and it needed a symbol to reunite the warring peoples of the North and South. Thanksgiving was never about a political holiday, but rather a spiritual one to reunite Americans with gratitude.
That lesson should not be lost on us today.
Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, yet it plays an important role historically, for national pride and a sense of self-determination of the Jewish people to believe in themselves. For a nation to believe in itself it must create an inner strength and acceptance by the people, not only politically but spiritually.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.