Chanukah on the high seas

December 22, 2017 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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Once again this year, I was privileged together with my wife to lead Chanukah services and run programs on an ocean liner in a room of our own viewing the Pacific Ocean…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram.

The Ovation of the Seas              Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

With three days to Chanukah, fewer than twenty had registered for the onboard services. At the same stage last year we had had over 100 sign up. Part of me was disappointed and part relieved as the only available room which had been allocated this year was much smaller and more than thirty would be a real squeeze. The cruise program administrator was not disappointed, simply relieved.

However when we took a look at the registration-book on Erev Chanukah, I was amazed to see that the numbers had swelled to almost seventy! Later I was to discover that this was in great part thanks to groups of Israelis we had met and a large party of colourful Panamanian Edot haMizrakh Jews of Syrian origin whom it was a great delight to get to know.

I made hasty arrangements to have all extraneous tables and furniture removed as well as most of the chairs, just retaining a dozen or so at the perimeter for those unable to stand..  It was still challenging as, for security reasons, we needed to have a clear space next to the menora and its flames (yes, real flames under strict supervision!).

Came the first night of Chanukah and it was almost like lehavdil in the Bet Mikdash (see Avot 5:7) as men, women and children piled into the room, yet everyone had space and no-one thankfully felt squashed.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

After the service and program that night and on subsequent Chanuka evenings when we chatted with participants over good old Aussie Margaret River kosher wine, I realised what a splendidly variegated international group we were!  All six continents (North and South America counting as separate) were well represented, It later dawned on me (as after 25 years in the Southern Hemisphere I take it for granted!) how extraordinarily special it must have been for the Northern Hemisphere cruisers to witness a Chanuka lighting caressed by a brilliantly dazzling setting summer sun over the Pacific ocean at 9pm topped, on Friday evening, by an impassioned rendition of Psalm 93 (examine the words for yourselves!).

Apart from spirited singing of Ma’oz Tsur and the most popular Jewish songs (occasionally competing with Beatles and other concerts nearby!), I delivered a brief message each night.  On Friday night which was the penultimate night of the cruise, I gave what I intended to be my final Chanukah thought. Anyone who has ever been on a cruise knows that the last night is hectic, what with settling bills and gratuities, packing and putting suitcases out for collection officially by 10pm. The Motsai Shabbos service was scheduled for 9.15pm.  I imagined that few if any would turn up and intended to make it short and sweet for those who did.

So on Friday night, I sought to inject a heady final dose of healthy Jewish pride.  I contrasted our survival across the millennia with the demise of empire after empire – Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman not to mention the FSU and the third reich.  I cited extracts from the famous and eloquent Mark Twain essay “Concerning the Jews” which he concludes with the rhetorical question. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

I suggested to my audience that an answer may lie in the famous verse from Sefer Devarim that we recite immediately prior to every Torah reading. You who cleave to G-D your G-d are alive, every one of you, today! (Deut 4:4)

This verse, I said, surely has relevance beyond its immediate context of Moses’ stirring valedictory address to his people.   Clearly too it is not speaking on an individual level.

It is simply stating the obvious: that those who seek to bring the G-D of the Torah, the Jewish G-D, into their lives through the joyful embrace of mitsvot such as Shabbat and Chanuka are thereby guaranteeing Jewish survival!

As I say, I did not expect to see most of the crowd again.  This time I was wrong twice over.

The Friday night service, conducted in the presence of a minyan, was followed up with a request from some of the Panamanians for a Shabbat morning service.  We mooted a few starting-times, conducted a few raising-of-hand surveys and eventually elicited consensus on time (another miracle!) ad a minyan of promises.  Thus it was that for the first time I experienced a Shabbat morning minyan at sea. (Veteran cruise-goers will know how rare an achievement that is outside the Kosherica experience.)  And to top it all we received a berakha from a Kohen as well! (Sephardim and Edot haMizrach communities duchan every day, even outside Israel.)

That really was the final goodbye, I reflected..  But no.  By 9.15pm, twenty minutes after Shabbat, we already had several participants eager for Havdala and the final onboard Chanuka lighting.  Then more and more began to stream in and suddenly we had a crowd equivalent to, or perhaps greater than, the first night.  Packing and housekeeping had lost big-time..Chanuka had won!

I knew I had to give some expression to this latest Chanuka miracle!  But what to say?  I had already encapsulated what I believed to be the quintessential Chanuka message, the secret of Jewish survival, the previous evening.  Was there perhaps another secret I could share with them, one that would be relevant to what we were experiencing here?

Barukh haShem, inspiration did not fail me.

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) concludes its brief account of the Chanuka miracle with the words “The following year they [the Hasmoneans and the Sanhedrin] permanenty established [these eight days] as a festival”.

Why was it necessary to wait a year before establishing the festival?

R’ Zvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov (1783-1841), universally known by the name of his most famous work Bnei Yissoschor, offers a stupendous insight.

The Biblical era was long over, as was the age of prophecy.  The only other permanent rabbinic festival, Purim, had been established during the Biblical era and while there were still living prophets.  Sages were no doubt ultra-cautious about going out on a limb and establishing a new permanent festival.  Megilat Ta’anit chronicles many special dates that were established none of which survived.    How could the sages be sure Chanuka would not go the way of them?

Explains the Bnei Yissoschor: that is why they waited a year. They wanted to see if the spiritual spark that had been ignited by the Chanuka miracle was still alive in the hearts and minds of Am Yisrael one year on. When they sensed that it very much was, they established the festival.

I added that if the Sages were sensing it, it must have been because there was a general desire, a clamour even, in the hearts of the commemorate the miracle.. Thus Chanuka is, in a very real sense, a people’s festival. the people’s festival par excellence.

This, I suggested, is the secret of Chanukah’s popularity.  No other festival is so universally cherished and loved.  No other festival is so “pampered”, so adored, so adorned with beautification-upon-beautification.  And that my friends, I concluded, is the secret of why you are all here right now instead of in your rooms packing!

I ended by expressing the hope that one year from now the spiritual spark ignited by our unique Chanuka together in 5778 will still be very much alight; and that we would all celebrate Chanuka 5779 together with all of Klal Yisrael in rebuilt Jerusalem!

As with Joseph’s dramatic revelation to his brothers at the start of this week’s sidra, it can happen k’heref ayin, in the blink of an eye!

Let it be!

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