By Date

Dear Friends,

As with most things these days, Hanukkah looks significantly different to me this year.

I have long focused on Hanukkah as a reminder of the human spirit. We shine light into the world at the darkest time of the year. By choosing to begin with a single candle and the Shamash on the first night and then adding a candle each night for seven more nights, we remind ourselves and one another that one of our tasks as members of the Jewish community is to add a bit of light to the world each day.

This perspective, which is as relevant as ever, emerges from the story of the vial of oil that miraculously burned for eight days when it should have only lasted one. It is a powerful story but one that doesn’t emerge until at least five hundred years after the Maccabean Revolt. Its emergence was not an accident. By introducing the story of the miracle, the rabbis of old sought to downplay the military aspect of the Hanukkah story and replace it with a theological lesson. And while that does not make the theological lesson any less impactful, one is left to wonder what prompted the rabbis to seek this “change in narrative.” For me, that is where Hanukkah begins to look different this year.

This shift in focus for the reason for Hanukkah, regardless of the intent of those who sought to make the change, ensured that this festive holiday would be a celebration of light rather than war. In this way, the first Hanukkah story we tell young children is tied directly to the ritual of removing ten drops of wine from the Passover cup and the rabbinic story of God silencing the People of Israel and the angels in Heaven when they broke into song after watching the Egyptian army drown in the Sea of Reeds.

In each case, the rabbis of old instructed us that, even when military action is necessary and even when we are victorious, there is nothing to celebrate. Because no matter how justified military action may be, war is ugly. War destroys God’s creations, too often resulting not only in the deaths of the enemy but of innocent civilians as well. And once we begin to celebrate the deaths of others, even when they sought to destroy us, we run the risk of starting to devalue life.

In other words, the change in narrative in the Hanukkah story, the removal of drops of wine from our cups, and the story about God silencing the celebration all reflect the rabbis’ ambivalence about war. It may be necessary, but it is never good.

I have heard from several of you that you, like the rabbis of old, are struggling with this war. We all should be. For even if Israel is successful at dismantling Hamas, there is nothing to celebrate. There will be nothing to celebrate.

That is the ugly truth about war.

I recently came upon this Instagram post that reflects this ambivalence. In addition, it offers a meaningful way to look at the current conflict by suggesting that this has never been a war between Israel and Hamas but is, in fact, a war between moderates and extremists. The language in the post is rather crass, but the message was significant enough that I wanted to share it with you. (In other words, this is Not Safe For Work Or Children.)

I would be interested in your thoughts after viewing it. (Apologies to those who do not have Instagram accounts and cannot view it. Unfortunately, that is the only place I have found it posted. If you are unable to access it, please reach out to me directly, and I will get you a copy.)

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen

Dvar Acher – While we are on the topic of light…

As we were preparing to kindle the first lights of Hanukkah, one of the brightest lights in the Jewish world was extinguished. Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, former President of the Hebrew Union College, died of a heart attack yesterday morning. Whether you knew David or not, his death is a tremendous loss for us all, as David was one of his generation’s most important and impactful teachers. He certainly played a profound role in shaping me as a Jew and a rabbi. He not only helped me understand and appreciate the rich history of Jewish thought and philosophy, but his kind, guiding hand helped give me confidence early in my studies when I was filled with self-doubt.

When the congregation honored me on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of my ordination, they asked me who, in a perfect world, I would want as the speaker that evening. I told them I would love to have David speak but that he was now the President of the Hebrew Union College, and I highly doubted that he could make the time. He did, and it is one of the most profound honors of my rabbinate.

I was speaking about David with my friend Rabbi Abby Treu of Oheb Shalom yesterday. She asked if I knew David, and I suddenly found myself transported back to a classroom at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles over thirty years ago. Twice a week, I would sit and learn from David for two hours each class. He was, by far, one of the smartest people I had ever met. Each class was a profound lesson in understanding who we are, how we got here, and where we might lead the community in the future.

David taught me that someone can be both brilliant and kind at the same time. And when you meet someone who possesses that rare combination, as David did, they elevate people and push them to dig more deeply—often surprising themselves—rather than making them feel smaller because they are in the presence of greatness.

David Ellenson was one of the great scholars of this generation. He was one of the most impactful teachers and helped shape the rabbinates and cantorates of countless Jewish professionals. He was a proud Zionist whose love for the Jewish people was deep and profound. David was one of the biggest mensches I have ever met.

He will be missed.


From Cantor Moses . . .

​​​​​​​One of my favorite classes in cantorial school was a class on the Torah portion of the week taught by Rabbis Norman Cohen, Aaron Panken z”l, and David Ellenson z”l. Each of them was a brilliant Torah scholar, and a class taught by one of them would have been enough. But to have all three teaching together was both a treat and a master class in Torah and collaboration. We got to witness these three giants have fun with our texts. Like three giddy kids, they taught, joked, and played off each other’s teachings. They showed through example that even though they were by far the smartest people in the room, they could still learn from one another, find joy in studying together, and just enjoy our sacred texts.

I was privileged to stand with David as he ordained me. Standing on the bimah at Temple Emanuel while he blessed me on this sacred path was awe-inspiring. What was truly breathtaking, though, was David. He kept a large stack of tissues in his pocket because he would start to cry as each new rabbi and cantor came up to be blessed. He would speak so personally to each of us. He knew each and every one of us and spoke words that let each one of us know that we were loved, respected, and blessed. Then, he would dry his eyes and put the wet tissue in his pocket. He would take out a fresh tissue as the next person was called because he would start to cry again. His sincerity and care for each student allowed us all to move forward into the next chapter, knowing we always had him in our corner. And he was. I will deeply miss him for his big heart, support, love of Judaism, impeccable scholarship, and a pocket full of tissues.