At Touro Synagogue December 31, 2016
Not by Might
by Aaron Ginsburg
We had many visitors at Touro Synagogue on December 31. Did they come because of the good weather? Shul on Shabbat was toasty rather than frosty.
Dr. James Herstoff led Pesukei d'zimra and Shacharit. Dr. Henry Spencer led the first part of the Musaf. To complete the Musaf, we joined visiting Israeli Chaim Weiss, who reprised the Kedusha to the tune of “Memory” from the musical Cats. Chaim’s voice filled the room, enveloping us from all directions and bringing our souls closer to the divine. Saul Schweber said, “We've had Tucker and others. Chaim Weiss was up there with the best.”
Rabbi Marc Mandel explained that Chanukah and Touro synagogue were made for each other,
"The holiday of חֲנֻכָּה is really a Touro Synagogue holiday. In fact, the first big Chanukah celebration on this continent might have been at Touro. This synagogue was dedicated on Chanukah in 1763. People came from all over the city to celebrate the opening of Touro Synagogue. Ezra Stiles, who later became the president of Yale University, wrote about the dedication in his diaries. Ezra Stiles loved the Hebrew language and he studied it with his friends at Touro Synagogue. Stiles wrote about our 500-year-old Torah and how it was a gift from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.
"This grand dedication took place on Chanukah . Why did they pick Chanukah? The word Chanukah means dedication. We have it in Psalm 30, with מִזְמוֹר: שִׁיר-חֲנֻכַּת הַבַּיִת לְדָוִד - A song to the dedication of David's Temple. חֲנֻכָּה means dedication. So it fits well. The juxtaposition of the word Temple and Chanukah made חֲנֻכָּה the perfect time on the calendar to dedicate Touro Synagogue.
"But חֲנֻכָּה has another meaning too-from the word Chinuch חינוך which means education and this symbolizes the importance of educating our children-Jewish education. And the founders of Touro Synagogue deliberately built the classroom in this building — upstairs for Jewish education. In fact one minister who was here in the 1700s wrote that, 'The inside of the building is beautiful, but the outside,'he said, 'was not so nice looking because they insisted on building a classroom.' Well, good for them! These were smart people. חֲנֻכָּה means to educate. If we don't educate the young ones — we will not survive. Fortunately we now have a Hebrew School and a tot Shabbat so we are following in the footsteps of the founders of Touro Synagogue.
"And as are beginning 2017, let us continue to dedicate ourselves to the oldest synagogue building in the country and to educate our families in the life of Torah and Judaism."
The special haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah, Zechariah 2:14-4:7 was also Touro appropriate. In verse 10 we read,
בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא נְאֻם֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת תִּקְרְא֖וּ אִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֑הוּ אֶל־תַּ֥חַת גֶּ֖פֶן וְאֶל־תַּ֥חַת תְּאֵנָֽה׃
In that day—declares the LORD of Hosts—you will be inviting each other to the shade of vines and fig trees.”
In his letter to The Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington used one of his favorite phrases, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Another famous phrase, Zechariah 4:5, ”Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the LORD of Hosts,” might be a warning that might does not make right without G-d’s spirit behind it. Debbie Friedman reinterpreted the phrase in her song “Not by Might” into a call for peace.
שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם Shabbat Shalom