December 11, 2008
Hanukka is a holiday with many names. Some call it the Festival of Lights, while others refer to it as the Feast of Rededication or the Holiday of Miracles. To add to the confusion, there is absolutely no consensus as to its proper spelling. If you don’t believe me, just check out the selection of Hallmark cards sporting everything from Chanukah to Hannuka and even one with three K’s — as in Khanukkah. Regardless of what it is called or how it is spelled, Hanukka is a holiday with multiple meanings.
The historical version of the events surrounding Hanukka, which is recorded in the Book of Maccabees, chronicles that in 168 BCE, the Syrian King Antiochus desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and issued decrees prohibiting Jewish worship, circumcision, and Shabbat observance. Mattathias the high priest, along with his five hardy Maccabean sons and a small group of Jewish insurgents, rose up and fought for three years against the Syrian army. On the 25th of Kislev, the Jews restored the Holy Temple and rededicated it to God. We learn from this version that through acts of defiance and resistance, the Jewish people can overcome oppression and live with dignity as Jews.
Another version of Hanukka focuses on the internal strife between Jews as they struggled to expand and define what practices were acceptable for Jews living within a foreign culture. In the last few centuries BCE, Hellenism and its social, economic, and political influences encouraged many Jews to compromise and abandon certain rituals and practices. Some Jews attended the gymnasium and participated in nude sports events. The Maccabees’ fight was not just against non-Jewish oppressors but against the highly assimilated Jews whose conduct they viewed as a threat to the continued existence of the Jewish people.
Almost 400 years later, the rabbis of the Talmud gave the story yet a different spin. Their version doesn’t even mention the name Maccabee and the war against the Syrians or refer to the tensions of living within the Greek culture. Instead, the rabbis shifted the focus to the role that faith in God plays as the key to Jewish survival. We are taught that “a great miracle happened there” when a small cruse of oil sufficient for one day lasted for eight days until more was found to keep the Temple’s menora lit. The eight candles we light on the menora remind us that we have survived over time because of our faith in God’s saving grace and power.
The significance of light itself is another aspect of the Hanukka story. At the darkest and often bleakest time of the year, Jews come together with family and friends to bring light, hope, and joy into their homes. For eight consecutive nights, we add an additional candle, increasing our ability to fight against winter’s darkness.
I would like to add another interpretation to the Hanukka mix. It is written in Proverbs 20:27 that “the human spirit is God’s candle.” I take this to mean that each of us has the capacity to bring light and goodness, joy and compassion into the world. Through our thoughts, actions, and relationships, through our efforts to restore balance, justice, and dignity in the world, we can illuminate others even in the darkest of times.
The shamash is the candle that ignites the others and is traditionally placed above the rest. This year when you light the shamash, imagine for a moment that you have the power to become “God’s candle.” What would it mean to light up the world around you with hope and possibilities? Your efforts don’t have to be time-consuming or expensive, but consider these eight small efforts that can make a world of difference and a difference in our world:
- Show respect for others’ ideas, time, and values, even when you disagree.
- Admit when you are wrong.
- Laugh at yourself, especially when things get crazy.
- Avoid harmful speech and gossip.
- Be authentic in your feelings and relationships.
- Donate food, clothing, time, or money to organizations in need.
- Visit a friend who is lonely or sick.
- Look for a blessing in your life every single day and be grateful for it.
When you blow out the match, remember that this is not just an ordinary holiday where we wish one another a hag sameah (a happy holiday), but the only time of year when we hope for a hag urim sameah — a joyous holiday of light.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman (www.amyhirshberglederman.com) is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker, and attorney.