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Vayeshev(Genesis 37-40)

Be Yourself


One message of Chanukah is that a person shouldn't be afraid to be himself. In the times of the first Chanukah, the Greek Empire was trying to force the Jewish people to become just like them, and give up their customs, values, identity and religion. But a brave group, called the Maccabees, realized that these things were too valuable to give away, and their heroism - and message - has helped us to hold onto our identity until today.

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In our story, a kid faces a choice of facing who he is.

"THE HOME TEAM"

Mike looked at his watch again for the fourth time with real agitation.

"I'll never make it in time," he whispered to himself. "What am I gonna do?"

He thought back to his mother's words this morning as he was walking out the door on his way to school.

"Don't forget, it's Chanukah tonight. Remember to be home in time to light the candles, Mike, ok? Grandma and Grandpa will be here. Six o'clock."

Now he stood out on the field in the middle of soccer practice wondering what on earth he was going to do. It was 5:30. If he left this minute, he'd still make it home in time. But how could he just walk out of practice? He'd trained like a donkey to make the team. He was one of the youngest guys on the team, and the last thing he wanted was to stand out and make a spectacle of himself.

But he could almost smell the delicious potato latke-pancakes being fried up like they were really right under his nose that minute. He could picture his grandparents sitting together on the couch, smiling at him, and saying, "Happy Chanukah, Michael," and handing him a ten-dollar bill for Chanukah gelt-money. He could see the colorful candles burning in the brass menorah, he could...

Suddenly, he felt a soccer ball slam into his shins.

Sam, his practice partner, and the only other guy in his grade on the team, had kicked him the ball and caught him daydreaming. "Hey Mike, wake up man. Where's your mind at?"

"Right here, right here. Hey, Sam, by the way, you guys light Chanukah candles at home, right?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Well it's almost sundown. Aren't you gonna ask to go home to join your family to light?"

"No way! I worked hard to get on this team, and I'm not taking any chances. Besides, none of these other guys will have any idea what we're talking about -they may even laugh at us! I'm staying put."

"You and me both, Sam," he whispered. Mike felt like a broken machine that was popping wires and spitting screws in every direction.

What should I do? Soccer? Grandma? Practice? Latkes? Aaaaghh. If I ask to leave, the coach might make fun of me, or even kick me off the team for not being loyal and I want to be a loyal member of this team. Forget it! Then, he thought some more. He remembered the story he'd read about Chanukah, how his brave ancestors were even ready to risk their lives rather than let the Greek Empire force them to stop being themselves - and here he was ready to give it all up so easily.

Sure, he thought, I want to be loyal to this team, but before I even joined this team I've been a member of my family team and of the Jewish people too - and I've got to be loyal to them too. Here goes nothing.

He left his position in the field at a dead run, as every eye turned to him. He jogged up to the coach, cleared his throat, but when he tried to speak, no words came out!

"What's the matter, Mike?" asked the coach. "Two days on the team and you have cold feet already?"

"N-n-no sir," said Mike. "I'd like to ask the coach permission to leave early..."

"Oh, you do? Why is that?"

Mike was sure he could see the coach's face getting red and eyes starting to bulge, but he had gone past the point of no return.

"Uh, I need to leave because, um, it's a Jewish holiday tonight! Chanukah! My grandparents! I need to get home right away...to light candles!"

Mike held his breath as the coach stared at him for a moment, trying to string together the disjointed words and figure out what the boy had been trying to say. Suddenly the man's face looked much calmer and friendlier.

"Oh, right. You're Jewish! And tonight is your holiday. Wow, you better make some tracks, my friend. Don't you have to be home by sundown or something like that?"

"Yeah, something like that. Thanks Coach! Thanks a million."

"Hey one sec. Hey, guys, heads up!" the coach shouted. "Mike here is going home to light his Chanukah candles. He's Jewish. This is a guy with principles, who knows - and cares about - who he is and where he comes from! You might want to take a lesson from him. This is just the kind of inner-toughness we need around here to win!"

Mike ran past his teammates' admiring looks and Sam's amazed stare, jumped on his bike and practically flew home, just in time to throw off his jacket and greet his smiling mom before his father lit the Chanukah candles. To his great joy, the scene looked exactly as he'd pictured it, with one significant improvement.

"Happy Chanukah, Michael," his grandmother said. And in his grandfather's outstretched hand was not the ten dollar bill he had expected. It was a brand new, crisp, twenty dollar bill.

"Thanks Grandpa!"

Someone up there must like me, he thought to himself, glad he'd had the guts to join the 'home team.'

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Ages 3-5

Q. How did Mike feel at first about leaving soccer practice early to join his family for Chanukah candle lighting?
A. He felt afraid to ask because he thought he would get kicked off the team.

Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. He was really glad he had asked and stood up for who he was.


Ages 6-9

Q. What lesson do you think Mike learned that day?
A. Sometimes a person feels like forgetting about his family background and where he comes from, if and when it's inconvenient or makes him stand out. However, as Mike rightly concluded, these things are an important part of who we are and shouldn't be taken lightly.

Q. Why do you think the coach reacted positively to Mike's request once he discovered the reason?
A. People naturally respect someone who has a strong sense of who he is and isn't afraid to be himself. The coach rightly realized that a person like that will have the strength and courage to succeed in whatever he sets out to do.

Spiritual exercise: Light Chanukah candles this year with the awareness that by doing so you are expressing and affirming your identity.


Ages 10 and Up

Q. Why do you think the Jewish people at the time of the first Chanukah fought so hard to maintain their unique identity, when the Greek Empire only wanted them to 'blend in?' What do you think was so important and do you think that maintaining our separate Jewish identity is relevant today? Why or why not?
A. The Jewish people's identity is something unique and precious. Thousands of years ago God gave us a special assignment to live uniquely ethical lives to be role models and help spread the light of interpersonal harmony and the Oneness of existence to the world. If we gave up our assigned role to blend in with the ancient Greeks, or any other culture, we would be letting God, ourselves, and the whole world down.

Q. Does this role give us the right to feel superior to any other group of people?
A. Absolutely not. In God's eyes, all of His creations are equally precious. However, just as each limb of the body has a different role and function to keep a person healthy and whole, so too does every People, or 'limb' of humankind. We should strive to fulfill our unique role, not out of superiority, but out of an inner obligation to be ourselves, for the benefit of all.

Spiritual exercise: Light Chanukah candles this year with the awareness that by doing so you are expressing and affirming your identity.


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Published: December 9, 2006

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