Rabbi's Weekly Teaching
Saturday, December 13, 2012
One of the "miracles" of Chanukah is that we continue to care so much about our Jewish heritage and our sacred Jewish treasures that we possess. Below is personal family story about the Goldbergs who demonstrated our Jewish spirit to make miracles happen.
Like the Goldberg family, we have firmly held on to our sacred heritage and transmitted it from each generation to the next; in one country after another. We've had so many to opportunities to abandon our Jewish treasures, but we never have; this is the Jewish miracle of Chanukah that we have celebrated this past week.
Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom,
"Sometimes it takes a crisis to show how strong your faith really is -- Our Hanukkah Miracle"
By Michael Goldberg -- Los Angeles, California
My wife and I are both teachers, I teach kitchen design at a UCLA extension school, while Ellen teaches religious education at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in downtown Los Angeles, not far from where we live. Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, with Hanukkah approaching, Ellen decided to take our antique menorah to school to show to her class and to talk to the children about Hanukkah.
This menorah was not some ordinary artifact; it was unique, priceless and irreplaceable. It had been handcrafted of silver in Poland in 1539 and was believed to have been owned originally by a Jewish physician who had saved the life of the son of a German prince. The prince gave it as a gift to the doctor. More than two centuries later, this same menorah was said to have belonged to a rabbi who was a counselor to Napoleon. Eventually it was passed along to our family.
What made it even more unusual and significant was that, unlike most menorahs used today, which are lighted by electricity or burn candles, it burned oil, like the menorahs of antiquity. Legend has it that when the Israelites regained their desecrated temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians in 165 B.C.E., they found one small cruse of oil that hadn't been defiled. In celebration, they poured the oil into a ceremonial menorah and lighted it. Though no one expected it to burn very long with that tiny amount of oil, it burned for a week and a day. That was the miracle of Hanukkah, which to this day is still celebrated by Jews the world over. During each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, Jews light one of the eight lights or candles in their menorahs, commemorating that triumph of God's people over their enemies.
When school was over that day, Ellen wrapped the menorah in newspapers to protect it and carried it home in a brown bag. She put the bag in a corner in our study. Normally we store the menorah in a bank vault, but Ellen put it in the study because we would be using it soon.
A week later, just before Hanukkah, Ellen was getting ready to polish the menorah. When she went to the study to get it, the bag was gone. Ellen came to me in tears.
"Let's not panic," I said uneasily. "We'll find it."
Our children, Joseph, nine, and Caren, six, helped us look. We covered every room in the house. No luck. I phoned Wilshire Boulevard Temple; they hadn't seen it. I phoned several friends: they hadn't seen it. Then I thought of Rosa, our cleaning lady who comes once a week.
I grabbed the telephone.
"Rosa," I said, trying to keep cool, "did you happen to see a bag of newspapers in the study last time you were here?"
Yes, Rosa had seen the bag on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Thinking it was trash, she had thrown it out.
I felt my shoulders slump. Our trash is picked up on Fridays. That was two days ago!
"It's not your fault," I consoled Rosa, who sounded close to tears herself. After all, the menorah weighed less than half a pound and it was only about six inches long, maybe five inches tall. How could anyone know it was there?
I staggered upstairs, burdened by the thought of the tiny, delicate menorah buried under tons of rubble and trash in the city dump. Exhausted from worry, I listened to Ellen urge me to go to bed and try to rest.
"I can't," I said. "Not yet anyway."
Disjointed thoughts and memories were sailing through my mind. I recalled when I was a child in New York City, how that menorah had meant such happy times. It wasn't just that this symbol of Hanukkah represented eight days of gifts. There was more. Whenever the menorah was brought out at home, my parents would always explain that against mighty odds, the Jewish people had never given up. Inspired by an unconquerable faith in God, they had endured.
Could I be that strong? I wondered. My faith in God was solid, I felt, but never had it really been tested; there had never been a real crisis in my life. Not till now, anyway. Finding that menorah would, in a sense, be a challenge to my trust in God's ability to save and protect. Simply put, I had to find that menorah. And I believed somehow God would help me if I just did my part.
Sometime around 3:00 a.m., I fell asleep. By six, I was up and on the telephone again. The first call I made was to the West Los Angeles Sanitation Department.
"Look, pal," the man who answered told me, "we get this problem all the time. It's hopeless. This city has seven hundred garbage trucks. Every day five thousand tons of trash is dumped at the landfill. And the landfill is two hundred fifty acres square. You ain't got a chance."
When I told him how big the menorah was, he practically laughed. "Hey, pal. People mistakenly throw away things five times that size, and we can't even find them when they're still on the truck."
He did make it sound hopeless. But I wasn't going to give up. Maybe if I could find somebody who understood the significance of what I was looking for,
I thought, I'd have a little better chance. "Is there a Mr. Schwartz there?" I asked.
"How about Mr. Cohen?"
I was beginning to run out of Jewish names when I tried Ackerman. "Yeah, we have a Mrs. Ackerman."
"Great. Let me talk to her, please."
When Mrs. Ackerman came on, I explained I had lost a very old, silver candelabrum.
"You probably won't find it," she replied. "But we've got to try." She promised to call right back.
In a few minutes she did. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, Mrs. Ackerman said, trash from my street - Butterfield Road - had not been picked up till Saturday. Since city trucks didn't collect on Sunday, only one layer of landfill rubble would be covering my garbage.
"Before, your odds were a trillion to one," Mrs. Ackerman said. "Now they're a million to one."
Desperate for help to reduce those odds, I asked, "Mrs. Ackerman, are you Jewish?"
Yes, she said, she was.
"Well, it was a menorah I lost."
"Oh, my goodness," came her reply. "We've really got to help you."
A few minutes later, my telephone rang once more. It was an Edward O'Neal, supervisor of the West Los Angeles Refuse Division.
"I don't know what church you go to, Goldberg," he said, "but you ought to light a candle. The truck that picked up your garbage hasn't dumped yet."
From deep inside me a cry of triumph burst forth.
"Now before you get too excited," O'Neal cautioned, "you better know that that truck, number eight-forty-eight, is on its way to the landfill right now."
Without saying another word, I hung up. The Sepulveda Canyon landfill was nine miles from my house. Early Monday morning traffic to that area would be horrendous. How could I ever make it in time?
"Please, Lord," I said, pulling on a pair of jeans. Incredibly, I did not hit a single red light on the way. In fact, I made it to the landfill in less than 10 minutes, flying past the gate as a guard hollered.
As I entered the sprawling dump, I spotted in the distance, chugging to the top of the craterlike dumping site, a white-and-black garbage truck with No. 848 painted on its side. Within moments, that truck would dump its contents, which would then be bulldozed over the edge of the cavity - to be buried under a mountain of dirt and rock.
Stepping down hard on the gas pedal, I climbed the hill, too, honking frantically. Garbage truck No. 848 stopped. Hopping out of my car, I asked the two surprised-looking men inside 848's cab if they had picked up on Butterfield Road on Saturday.
No, they said, they hadn't.
The answer took the wind out of me. Suddenly I felt weak. I had given it my best effort and now had come up empty.
"But we weren't using this truck on Saturday," one of the men said. "Somebody else was."
My spirits soared again. I told them my problem. And again I was told how slim my chances were. "There's eight tons of garbage in this truck," 848's driver said. "It'll be like a needle in a haystack, only much worse."
Nevertheless, I persuaded him to dump the load in an open space, where I could get at it. When he did, I gasped; the knee-deep pile covered an area about the size of a two-bedroom house. Wildly, I began to sift through coffee grounds, eggshells, half-eaten TV dinners, still not even sure this was the refuse from Butterfield Road. Thick dust choked my lungs. An awful smell stung my nostrils. Around me, bulldozers worked with a deafening roar. Several times workers screamed for me to leave, but I kept wading through the refuse, digging, searching.
The temperature was in the high 70s. After about 10 minutes of searching, I was soaked to the skin. Earthmovers edged closer as I ripped at plastic garbage bags. If only I had a shovel, I thought. Just last week, a man working for me had thrown my old shovel in the garbage by mistake. Turning to the men from 848, I asked if they had one on their truck. They shook their heads.
"Isn't that a shovel over there?" one said, pointing to an object about 20 yards from me.
Looking up, I saw a brown handle sticking into the air. As I slogged toward it, I caught my breath: That was my old shovel!
"That's my shovel!" I shouted crazily, the landfill workers nearby stopped and stared. I felt that this was my sign from God: "Dig here!"
New energy surged into my arms and legs, and oblivious to the din, the dirt and the odor, I began to patiently tear through the garbage bags near the shovel. Two hours and I don't know how many plastic bags later; I fished out the menorah, still wrapped in newspapers. It was scratched in back, its little oil-bearing cups twisted, but otherwise it was okay.
Tears hung from the corners of my eyes as I drew the menorah to my chest. I was sure that no treasure ever lost and then found again had ever in history brought such joy. My sense of relief and gratitude was absolutely overwhelming.
Holding the menorah aloft then, I began to pray:
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. . . ."
Two days later, as Ellen and I set the ancient menorah in our living-room window to begin the observance of Hanukkah. I couldn't help thinking of all the strange events that had restored it to me. Finding Mrs. Ackerman to help was a wonder in itself. And the garbage truck that didn't dump for two days. And all the green traffic lights on the way to the landfill. And the broken shovel standing there like a beacon, as if God Himself had told me where to
dig, so that the menorah finally could be found.
God's hand in the whole experience now seemed very clear. Never before had I felt so close to Him. As He had so many times throughout the centuries, God had once more demonstrated and I was awed to think this time He had done it to reveal how worthy of our trust He is.
To my family and me it was nothing less than a miracle. It was our new miracle of Hanukkah.
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