I’m going to ask you at the end of this article to weigh in on Chanukah.
In truth, if the battle of Chanukah were fought today, which side would each of us be on?
The traditional view of Chanukah is straightforward. About twenty-one hundred years ago, traditionalist forces, led by Yehuda HaMakabi ("Judah the Hammer") cleared the Jerusalem Temple of Greek influences.
Sources tell us that in 167 BCE King Antiochus IV ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. He banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar. Antiochus's actions provoked a large-scale revolt.
Yet, he was not alone. Modern scholarship posits that the king was intervening in a civil war between traditional and Hellenized Jews. These were times when “empire fever” was sweeping the region. It was becoming less fashionable for small cities and states to worship local Gods, whether they were material or transcendental.
Many Jews embraced Greek culture which was perceived by many to be more modern and sophisticated. Greek inspired arts, athletics and philosophy captured the public imagination. Judaism in the eyes of many seemed too “old school.” And the battle lines were drawn.
Chanukah was in essence the culmination of a civil war, as traditional Jews led by Judah, outmuscled Hellenistic forces. The Temple was rededicated on the 25h day of Kislev. Basically, Chanuch is connected to the word “dedication”, and KAH represents the number 25 (the way Chai translates to 18).
Two thousand years later, not much has changed.
This time of the year, we as Jews are enveloped by a series of solstice festivals. At many levels, this is a good thing, especially in New York as stores, banks, municipalities, media and many institutions – our non Jewish friends and neighbors -- show great respect for Jewish culture
What is actually emerging is a type of morphed world festival which focuses on colored lights, spirited community gatherings and gift giving.
That is actually a wonderful thing. During the darkest time of the year, we need to gather as human beings and remember that we are in this together, and that during a time when light seems so far away, the human spirit can prevail.
Yet, we need to be careful not ascend the same slippery slope that our ancestors did more than two thousand years ago.
And if I dare, it’s a message perhaps for other faiths as well.
While it is constructive to use material “add-ons” to enhance our seasonal camaraderie, they cannot comprise the main program.
The current pressure perceived by many to physically satiate family and friends pollutes the spirit of the season. It moves us backwards in the long run.
For in the end, Chanukah and perhaps even its step sister Christmas must ultimately embody and reflect the inspiration and spirit which they were founded on two millennia ago.
In particular Chanukah is about hope; that a group of traditionalists said “no” to a world which promoted assimilation.
We as Jews believe that although festive days like Chanukah should involve fun, food and an exchange of physical tokens, that a holiday is no holiday unless it includes sacrifices of the heart. These consist of gimilut chassadim, acts of loving kindness which can include gestures of empathy, charity, social conscience and a renewed commitment to heal this often broken and imperfect world.
It is why Chanukah should not be guided by a never ending lust for things, but rather our recognition that miracles existed in the times of our ancestors, and to this very day. That is the essence of the second blessing (berachah) which we recite on Chanukah.
So let us ask ourselves which direction are we heading? Which side of the Chanukah battle are we edging closer to?
Chanukah is a time to salute our heritage, and to thank God that in spite of never ending threats and pressures, our unique perspective on life continues to shine.
Each one of us is a light. Together we form the great Chanukiah (Chanukah Menorah) of Judaism and of humanity.
Chanukah is about counting the miracles around us, looking at each person in our lives, and feeling the spark of light which emanates from them.
At its core, Chanukah is only slightly connected with gift giving. It has everything to do with finding the spiritual spark within.
Let us embrace our friends and neighbors and their important and heartfelt celebrations at this time of the year. But let us also remember who we are.
And let us also embrace, one of God’s greatest miracles of all.
Let us look for it in others. Let us spread it around the world.
And let us remember the Maccabees – the Hammer Fighters, who left us a message which rings as true today as it did two thousand years ago.
Chanukah asks us at this darkest time of the year, “where is the light?”
The Torah tells us the answer is “not baffling at all.”
It is contained in the opening words of the Torah, when God said:
“Let there be light.”
Chanukah is a time to rekindle that light.
It cannot be found in an IPhone, Play Station, Furby or Leap Frog 2.
In truth, the light of Chanukah can only be found in you and me.
Shabbat shalom v’kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Irwin Huberman