What do crushed dates, horses’ bridles, GSCEs and the Maccabees all have in common?
Though I do love a good riddle, this isn’t one. Rather it is a moment to appreciate the magic of the Hebrew language. As a rabbi, I spend so much time interested in the wonderfully ambigious connections between meaning and language. Trying to grasp the meaning of a given Hebrew root-structure is like trying to catch the breath that leaves your body when you exhale; maybe you can get a bit of it but you know there’s always more. The ways in which particular symbols (letters/morphemes) and the sounds associated with them (phonemes) create meaning is proper and pure magic.
So, to our riddle, then. Consider the three letter root ח.נ.ך – Ch.N.K(h). It means to train something (or someone), or retrain them, to educate them, to habituate them, or to acclimatise them. The base of it seems to be a real practice. When midwives put crushed dates on the palate of a baby’s mouth to teach it how to suck, thats called ‘chanaka‘ (حَنَكَ) in Arabic. From there it becomes used to teach a horse to be submissive by putting a rope in its mouth. From there it comes to mean ‘training someone/thing to understand’, and from there it means ‘to train a skill’ or ‘to educate’. And yet the last (and most well known) meaning is the most curious. As we know it best, Ch.N.Kh means ‘to dedicate’.
So the question of course is what is the connection? What links the consecration of a building or the re-dedication of the Temple on Chanukah to a midwife placing date paste in an infant’s mouth? I suppose you could make many interpretations, but to me it is clear: dedication is made possible by habituation. It is the ritual of training and practice which makes a skill flourish– just as it is the sustained and consistent support of a community that dedicates its space as sacred and holy.
Next week you will be hearing more from Darren and Nick about a fundraising campaign that we are beginning as a community. Like most, COVID has hit us hard, and we find ourselves, this Chanukah, needing to rededicate our community and consecrate its holy work. To do that, we need more than just the spectacle of a dramatic victory. What’s missing from the Maccabees’ story is what happens after they regain the Temple. How do they sustain the newly re-sanctified worship? By practice, custom, routine and sustained effort. Like a horse training to be ridden or a baby training to nurse, a community needs consistent and sustained injections of energy, passion, time, and of course money – in order to dedicate and re-dedicate itself anew.
Please consider whether you can help us. Consider whether you can habituate yourself to give a little bit each month to help us re-dedicate our sacred mission during this difficult time. The Maccabees’ glorious victory is lovely, and worthy of celebration (as we shall do)– but the unsung heroes of the Chanukah story are all the people who gave of themselves to get the Temple back up and running again after such a crisis. When we say Chanukah (Dedication/Training/Education/Habituation), we should have in mind those people as well, those who focussed on creating a sustainable future through the gradual dedication to renewal and regeneration.
In unpacking all that those three letters can mean, we can understand more about what we mean when we say Chanukah. It’s not just the champagne bottle smashed on the side of the boat or the ribbon cut with comically-large scissors, Chanukah is also about the small things: the habits and behaviours which made rededication stick.
Wishing you all an early Happy Chanukah! Let’s hope it brings not only light to this dark season, but also a rededication to our community and our lives. Let us not forget that the dedication we seek comes about through small acts of habit, practice, and custom – that we must train ourselves both to educate and to dedicate.