Ushpizin is the Aramaic word for guest. The custom of Ushpizn is practiced on each night of Succot. We invite guests in to our Succhah. Traditionally they are Biblical figures. We tell their story, we discuss their life and some of us even craft our menu around them; red lentil soup for Jacob, lamb for Isaac, you get the idea. What if we were to create Chanukah Ushpizin? Let us identify eight people from different moments in Jewish history that each embodies the ideals and heroism of Chanukah. Then we "invite" them into our homes.
After lighting the candles take a few minutes to announce the arrival of the evening’s guest. The guests appear in chronological order highlighting challenging times in our history.
In preparation you might do a little research of your own but if time is limited simply read the short paragraph below. Then encourage your family and friends to discuss the person and their story. In what way does their life inform our celebration of Chanukah?
If you are feeling particularly ritualistic like you might begin by an official declaration, otherwise simply launch a conversation around the evening’s personality.
Here is my list, feel free to create your own. Start with this opening declaration if you like and follow with a list of guests and a few short details about their life.
Welcome venerable guest! Welcome to our celebration of Chanukah. On this Night of Chanukah we celebrate your story of heroism and commitment our people and our beliefs.
Mattiyahu. How could we not start with this preeminent figure of the Chanukah story? Known in English as Matthias, he is father of the Maccabees. When Greek officers arrive in Modi'in with the intention of forcibly implementing the king's ordinances regarding sacrifices to idols, Mattityahu refuses. Together with his sons and other believers he launches the battle against the Greco-Syrians.
Judith is one of our most courageous female heroines. The legend goes that she was coerced by the Greco-Syrians to spend the night with the foreign general before her own wedding. Once alone with the inebriated man she was able to cut off his head, present it to the Maccabbees who proceeded to win the battle against the leaderless army.
Yochannan ben Zakkai is the first century sage who faced with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the virtual obliteration of his community succeeds in extricating a promise from Vespasian the conquering general to preserve and save the Torah scholars of Yavneh thereby guaranteeing the continuity of our people.
Don Isaac Abravanel who lived in the 15th century in Spain was a great Torah scholar. Though he was a prominent member of the court of Ferdinand and Isabella he opted to be exiled together with the Jewish community in 1492. He heroically led them in the march out of Spain.
Sara Bat Tovim lived in the 1700’s in the Ukraine which was still reeling from the Chmelnitzki uprisings. There she began to write prayers specifically for women with uniquely female themes. The prayers were in Yiddish and used by women. Her heroism is the heroism of a less dramatic nature, but deeply significant.
In the 1920’s Sara Schenier living in Krakow Poland began to realize that young Jewish women were receiving no formal Jewish education. She heroically launched the Bais Yaacov movement still alive and well till today. She started with one school and one small group of young women. By the time World War II started there were over 20,000 women studying in her schools, most of her students perished in the Holocaust.
We invite two young women, Ala Gertner was one, who on October 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners relegated to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after realizing that they were going to be killed that evening. During the revolt, they were able to blow up one of the gas chambers. The prisoners had used explosives smuggled into the camp by these two young Jewish women who had been assigned to forced labor in a nearby armaments factory. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives into the camp were caught and publicly hanged.
Natan Scharansky looms large in the minds of those of us who were alive during the refusnik period. After spending almost ten years in Soviet prisons for trumped up espionage charges he was released with great celebration. Afterwards, when he was asked about his ordeal andhow he had survived, he spoke about a book of David's Psalms, which his wife had given to him. In particular Psalm chapter 23 which said, "fear noevil" which would later become the title of his autobiography.
I hope this helps bring the Chanukah story alive. It is a story with reverberations throughout history and a tale that begins with the Maccabees but continues through the great people of all generations who display every day courage as well as spectacular acts and who are ready to lay their life on the line in more ways than one, for Judaism and the Jewish people.