The Exodus:5 Project
God has fixed the time; tomorrow, God will do this thing in the land. Exodus 9:5
I am writing this message in the middle of the annual observance of Chanukkah (also known as Hanukkah, Chanukah, and חנכה. A traditional Jew will recite, somewhere between three and seven times a day, a declaration of Thanksgiving for the miracles that occurred “in those days at this time.” It is a reference to two of the kinds of measurements we use for time.
This holiday – like all holidays, communal and personal – commemorates something that occurred at a moment in the past. My birthday was in the 1950’s. My anniversary was in the mid-1970’s. The United States became a nation in 1776. Veterans Day began in 1918 when the First World War ended. Chanukkah happened 2182 years before this writing.
This holiday – like all holidays, communal and personal – occurs at a fixed time on the calendar. My birthday is during the summer. My anniversary is in late spring. The United States gains a year on July 4. Veterans Day happened at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Chanukkah happens at this time.
We live our lives in the constant intersection of the vertical and the horizontal. Every day is one of “those days.” (Some, I can attest, more than others!) And every time is “this time.” When we cycle back to the anniversary of an event – week, month, year – we will remember anything of significance in the new context of this time.
My home expression of Judaism – the Conservative movement – made a slight emendation to the prayers that upended the meaning of this marvelous phrase, “in those days at this time.” The editors of our prayer book added a single letter in Hebrew, a single word in English, between the two phrases, which now tells us that we offer thanks for miracles “in those days and at this time.” The phrase now seeks to serve dual purpose – to remember the past and to imagine the present. The two are unmoored from each other. You may have figured out that I don’t like it.
It relegates Chanukkah to the past and equates unrelated unlikely “deliverances” we might identify. Happy though I might be that a state election that concluded on the first night of the holiday this year saw the forces of light triumph over the forces of darkness, it does not have the staying power (or the theological imprimatur) to claim that God has fixed the time to do this thing in the land!
Moreover, it encourages the appropriation of religious traditions for self-serving purposes. That’s not to say that the significance of each candle cannot remind us of other values, but our Sages insisted that the lights of Chanukkah not be used for any purpose other than reminding us of the miracles in those days at this time. Attaching a different message is like using Memorial Day to sell mattresses.
I am just old-fashioned enough in my faith to seek to preserve the power of the original remembrance. The age we live in demands that I live my life as a multitasker – including theologically – but the words of this prayer of gratitude expect me to acknowledge a particular touchstone as unique in origin and timeless in inspiration. It is also true, in a different context, for my birthday, our anniversary, Independence Day and the day we acknowledge the service of our citizens to preserve our way of life. There is a difference between acknowledging that other things happened in those day or at this time – something that keeps us from seeing ourselves as the center of the universe – and acknowledging the meaning and significance that we can ascertain a sense of intention from the Source of all life in the intersection of those days and this time.
Whew. This is supposed to be one of the fun times! So get out there and have fun. Sing a little, spin a little, eat something fried. The price was paid 2000 years ago in those days, and this time is set aside to benefit from the investment!