Prefer to listen? I read this post for the Jewish Geography podcast:
Chanukah (pronounced Ḥanukah, but has a million different spellings, and I’ve always preferred Chanukah) is the most famous of Jewish holidays. But it is actually a minor rabbinical holiday, of less importance than most of the other Jewish holidays. So why is it so well-known, you wonder?
One word: Christmas.
Many cultures have a holiday around the time of year. Skeptics would say this is a remnant of ancient pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. I would say, there is something about this time of year that people are drawn to. When the darkness is greatest, we are most compelled to search for the light.
So what is the darkness that the Jews encountered that compelled us to find the light of Chanukah?
You have probably heard the story before, so I’ll be brief: the story of Chanukah goes that during the Hellenistic period, the Greek ruler over Judea made laws that were increasingly anti-Jewish and oppressive, banning circumcision and kosher slaughter, institutionalizing idol worship, and defiling the Holy Temple. A motley band of Jewish fighters–the Maccabees–rebelled against the Greeks, and in a series of miraculous battles, won back Jewish sovereignty over the land and over Jerusalem, and were able to restore the Temple and rededicate it to the service of God. (The word Chanukah, חנוכה, means “dedication.”) But, the story goes, there was one problem: when searching for pure oil to use to light the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabra that burned constantly in the Temple, they were only able to find one small bottle—enough oil to burn for one day. It would take eight days to acquire a new supply of pure oil. The miracle of Chanukah is that after they lit the Menorah, expecting it to go out after one day… it burned, and burned, and burned, for all eight days. That is why we light the nine-branched chanukiyah for Chanukah—one candle for each day, and one with which to light the others. We start with one candle on the first day, and add a candle every night until there are eight.
On the surface, we’ve got a nice “David and Goliath” style story here of an unlikely military victory, plus a nice little miracle that has to do with a lamp. But what is the real light here, and what is the real darkness? Is the darkness the oppression of the Greeks, and the light, the light of the Menorah in the Temple? Or is there something else to this story?
Let’s zoom in a little on the period before the Maccabees. If you were picturing the Jews looking on in horror while the Greeks went about their hedonistic shenanigans, think again. As you full well know, Greek culture was not just about oppressing Jews—it was an incredibly powerful and advanced culture, with superior science, philosophy and technology, and there was a lot that was attractive about it. Western culture as we know it today is built on the marriage between the Greek culture and Judeo-Christian values. And Jews have always liked to be on top of the latest and greatest progress in the world. So many, many Jews embraced the Greek culture and adopted it as their own—and began to shed their Jewishness. They agreed with the Greeks who scorned Judaism as being primitive, backwards and irrelevant. It was time to move forward in the world and become part of real progress, instead of clinging to their tragic past and the covenant with God that their forefathers had broken.
Does this sound familiar in any way…?
If I asked you what the greatest danger to Judaism is and has been throughout history, you might answer oppression, hatred, and antisemitism. I beg to differ. The greatest danger to Judaism is assimilation.
Assimilation means losing sight of what it is that makes us special. It means losing sight of our purpose, our essence, our unique contribution to the world. It means allowing our unique voice to be swallowed up into the cacophony and confusion of humanity’s global conversation. Assimilation is darkness.
God said, “Let there be light.”
We believe that God created humans to elevate the world to a higher spiritual place. And we believe that God chose us as a nation to guide our fellow humans to that place. To be a “light unto the nations.”
See where I’m going with this?
The real darkness in the story of Chanukah was not the external force of the Greeks’ oppression; the real darkness was doubt. Doubt that our identity, our message, our traditions had anything to say to the Greeks, doubt that they had importance in the grand scheme of things. And the light was more than just the Menorah that quietly burned eight times as long as it should have. The light was the essence of the Jewish people, which has survived a hundred times as long as it should have, which has refused to be extinguished despite the sound and fury of hundreds of cultures that swept the world, only to fade over time. But our light never faded. It burned, and burned, and burned. And in the midst of it all, the Torah is the “candle for our feet, the light to our path” (to slightly paraphrase Psalms 119:105), whispering in our ears the truth that God spoke to us at Mount Sinai. The Torah is the pillar of fire that continues to lead us through the desert to the Promised Land.
And as more and more Jews see no reason to hold on to the faith of their ancestors, and their children and grandchildren lose all connection to that past, it is more important than ever to emphasize this message of Chanukah. There is something special about you and the people you come from. Something that God gave you, making you who you are and giving you the unique mission only you can complete. That is your light. Own it.
And here I must once again bring that wonderful whiteboard animation video by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that I brought in this entry, because I think his piece speaks to this point so precisely.
“I admire other civilisations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world, Aval zeh shelanu, ‘but this is ours.’ This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give.”
On that note… I wish you a holiday, and indeed a life, full of light, full of the truth within you. And I pray that you will never be afraid to own your light, and let it shine on everyone around you.