Sunday, December 16, 2007

Derashah: Vayyigash 5768: My trip to the White House Chanukah Party

Trip to the White House
The White House Chanukah celebration was fantastic.
Among other highlights:
Caren and I toured the White House “Shell Room,” a remarkable tribute to the First Lady’s interest in the National Parks, featuring four large cones coated with seashells, seashell wreaths and a seashell display table;
We took not one, but two photographs with the President, because he blinked on the first one;
We heard the Marine Band play “I had a little dreidel” and saw Malcolm Hoenlein and Senator Lieberman, among other celebrities.
The highlight, for me, was the moment when we entered the room where the president was, and I looked up and saw him, standing just a few feet from us. I’m a native New Yorker, I lived in Manhattan and went to school there for more than a decade, I think I don’t lose my breath easily - but I have to admit that I just gasped when I saw him.
And there was another highlight - I have to admit, I came away with pockets full of napkins bearing the Presidential Seal.

Seudaso shel Achashverosh?
But all through the preparation for our trip, and all through our train ride to Washington, and all through the party itself, I was dogged by one concern, the message of a brief passage of Gemara (Megilah 12a):
Rabban Shimon bar Yochai was asked by his students, regarding Purim, “Why did the Jews of that generation deserve destruction?” Even though tragedy is not always a result of sin, the first response of a Jew is to ask whether he deserves whatever trouble he is experiencing, and so the students wanted to know if some sin was the cause of our vulnerability to Haman.
In reply, Rabban Shimon bar Yochai pointed to the beginning of Megilat Esther, and Achashverosh’s party. He said that the Jews were punished for attending Achashverosh’s feast. Even though the Jews attended out of fear of looking unpatriotic if they didn’t go, they should not have attended.
So I rode down to Washington wondering whether this was the equivalent of attending Achashverosh’s celebration. I was certainly surrendering certain mitzvah opportunities in order to go - I davened Minchah and Maariv privately instead of with a minyan (there was a maariv minyan in the White House, but I didn’t know that until later). I lit Menorah very late at night. I spent significant money on train tickets, money that might have gone for tzedakah. Was I doing all of this just to go to an Achashverosh party?
I especially wondered about this as I looked around the rooms at the celebration and saw Satmar and Lubavitcher Chassidim, and a few black-hatted gentlemen who were from various Yeshivos. What were we doing there, in a White House dominated by evergreen trees and tinsel?
But upon further reflection I saw two key differences between our event and Achashverosh’s meal.

Achashverosh’s party marked our downfall; the White House party marked our ascendancy
First, the two parties sent opposite messages about the future of the Jewish people.
The Gemara explains why Achashverosh held his big party: It was to celebrate the exile of the Jews from Israel.
A little bit of history - our neviim predicted that after the destruction of the first Beis haMikdash by the Babylonians, we were to be exiled for 70 years, and then return to Israel. There were at least three different ways to count the seventy years, and based on Achashverosh’s count, the seventy years were now up, and we had not returned to Israel. To him, this was a sign that we were exiled for good, and Gd had abandoned us - and so he made a party, and so the Jews attended a party marking their own downfall.
To me, that’s one difference between Achashverosh’s feast and the White House Chanukah celebration: Achashverosh was marking the demise of the Jews, the White House was marking the strength of the Jews.
For all of our concern about Jewish assimilation, intermarriage, and loss of identity;
For all of our concern about rising Arab power and declining Jewish influence, and Condoleezza Rice’s newfound Palestinian heritage;
Here we were in the center of power of the nation that is still the world’s only superpower, celebrating Chanukah.
As I said in The Allentown Morning Call this past Thursday, America is a remarkable country and its democracy an incredible system, the way it honors minorities. Even if this honor is a political nod intended to earn votes, it shows that in the American system, everyone matters. We matter - and we have a future.

The White House party marked our identity
Second, the two parties sent opposite messages about the importance of Jewish identity.
Achashverosh’s party marked the downfall of the Jews and of separate Jewish identity, and by participating, the Jews themselves signaled that they had bought into his message.
In contrast, the White House celebration marked the vitality of Jewish identity, and of Torah, for America’s Jews.
The fact that this was a kosher dinner, the fact that the president extended the bulk of his invitations to the Torah-observant community, shows that we matter specifically as Jews, and as standard-bearers for Torah. We were there because we are Jewish, we are popular because we retain our Jewish identity.
It’s really only logical that our identity should matter, and that we should be there as Jews and Torah-observers, specifically. If I were to adopt the label of a political movement, if I were to identify as an Environmentalist or a Progressive or a Free-Marketer or a Globalist, and I didn’t have the name “Jew” in my title and I didn’t include Judaism in my mission statement, then why would I belong at a Chanukah party?
This was a true Kiddush HaShem, a sanctification of Gd’s Name. Our influence as Jews, and our recognition as Jews, has come because we have retained our identity.

These two messages - about the future of the Jewish community and about the importance of Jewish identity - apply far beyond the White House Chanukah celebration and our representation in the corridors of power. This message is for our daily lives.
Our day-to-day existence in this benevolent and wealthy land has the potential to go either way, to be a White House Kiddush HaShem or to be Seudaso shel Achashverosh. Earning a living at work, going to a park or restaurant, taking part in a community initiative, we can choose to bury our Judaism as was done at Achashverosh’s party, or to highlight it in the way that we did at the White House.
If I take off my yarmulka to attend a sporting event, if I hide my Judaism at work, if I deny to the world that I am part of this Jewish nation, then my life in America is attendance at Achashverosh’s seudah - I am enjoying the pleasures of this land, and paying a price by surrendering my Jewish identity.
But if I wear my yarmulka proudly, if I let people know I am Jewish, if I unabashedly support Israel and promote the ideals of my Judaism, then I create Kiddush HaShem, and I earn the right to celebrate Chanukah in the corridors of power.

Closer: The Menorah in the Beis haMikdash
The Gemara asks why Gd told us to light a Menorah in the Beis haMikdash each night, year-round. After all, Gd is the provider of all light - Gd doesn’t need our illumination! To which the Gemara replies that the Menorah’s light teaches us a major lesson: שהשכינה שורה בישראל, that the Shechinah is manifest among us. The light of the Menorah signals that we, as a nation, matter, that there is significance to being a Jew, to living as a Jew.
This light was on display in the White House this past Monday evening, the 7th night of Chanukah; may it be equally displayed in our actions every day and night of our lives.

Further thoughts:
1. Tragedy is not always a result of sin - see the gemara at the end of Chullin, as well as Moed Katan 28a.
2. Achashverosh's party was also kosher. Serving Kosher food can be a temptation for assimilation - See, you can still be Jewish even if you become like us - or it can be a display of respect.
3. Does attendance at this party override minyan, or lighting Menorah on time? Why?
4. Why does the Menorah's light, in particular, show that the Shechinah is among us? Is it to replicate the pillar of fire in the Midbar?


  1. So you finally started a blog. How could you do that without telling me? I am totally insulted.

  2. Secret-
    Because I didn't want you to have the honor of being the first commenter.
    Oh, well.