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Hanukkah: Five Lessons of the Holiday to Unwrap

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Hanukkah begins on the Hebrew calendar date of 25 Kislev and lasts for eight days. This year, the holiday is celebrated from December 8th-16th. The story of Hanukkah chronicles the four-year war which took place between 167 BCE-163 BCE as oppressed Jews struggled under the rule of Antiochus IV of the Syrian-Greeks. Jews were forbidden to follow their ritual observances and pagan worship was introduced into their sacred Temple. It is also about a civil war between those Jews who aligned themselves with the Greek-Syrian ways and the Maccabees, a small group of Jews who resisted such assimilation. The holiday culminates in the re-taking and rededicating of the Temple in Jerusalem and re-lighting the seven-branched candelabra that was supposed to always remain lit.  The long-ago story of Hanukkah offers lessons for people of all faiths wrestling with challenges today. Here are five ideas that Hanukkah, also referred to as, The Festival of Lights, can teach us:

  • Moving from Darkness to Light

We have all experienced dark periods in our lives. Sometimes that darkness stems from an individual struggle, like the loss of a job, a loved one, or a sense of purpose in one’s life. At other times, it is a collective darkness, like the kind we all experienced September 11, 2001 and in its aftermath. When darkness spreads it can lead to despair and hopelessness and it is important to recognize that place before we can transcend it. Sometimes the situation calls for outward action, while other times what is needed is inward reflection. When the Maccabees revolted against the darkness they faced as a result of the increasingly harsh treatment imposed upon them and their freedoms, they chose outward action. When it came time to rededicate both themselves and their Temple, they called upon inward meditation to take the first step of faith in using the tiny amount of available oil to reignite the sacred light of the Temple and to rekindle their souls. As the story of the miracle of Hanukkah goes, they only had enough sacred oil to last for one day, but the oil burnt for eight days, long enough for the time needed to make more oil. During Hanukkah, the shamash, or helper candle is used to light an additional candle each night culminating in eight burning flames and reminding us that by simply lighting one candle, we have the opportunity to light many candles. In that lighting, we see that our own light is never diminished when we share our light with others.  As the days grow shorter and the air chills, the celebration of Hanukkah shines light into the darkness and teaches us to rededicate ourselves to kindling the flame of hope.

  • Standing up for Oppression

The Festival of Lights is also a story about seeking freedom in times of tyranny. Though small in number against a powerful group, the Maccabees fought to regain their rights and in the end triumphed, as they reclaimed their Temple. These were ordinary people with extraordinary courage and commitment to fight for their freedoms. Today, we see people both at home and abroad who are oppressed and marginalized. We are reminded that it is incumbent upon us, ordinary men and women, to fight for justice where we see injustice, and for liberty where we see oppression. It is important that we fight on behalf of our own freedoms as well as those of our fellow human beings. As Rabbi Hillel so famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

  • Finding the Balance

The concept of assimilation figures large in the story of Hanukkah. How does a community or a group maintain its identity in relation to the culture at large? How much will it resist outside influences and how much will it embrace those influences? When the Maccabees revolted against the Syrian-Greeks, they were also revolting against a Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Yet as a result of living within the culture at large, Judaism moved from being philosophically illiterate to becoming a systematic and coherent faith. From the Greeks, and later the Romans, they learned the principles of legal interpretation which became the method of interpreting Jewish law in the Talmud.  Many of the words central to the Jewish faith are Greek words, such as synagogue, Diaspora, Sanhedrin (the Rabbinical high court) and even the word Judaism, itself. Just as it is important to find the balance of retaining one’s culture and tradition while also being open to the gifts of the larger community, so too must we find this balance in our personal relationships. How do we connect with others, without losing ourselves? Hanukkah offers an opportunity to find the balance in retaining our identity while still being connected and involved with people and communities outside of ourselves.

  • Taking the First Step

We are faced with daunting tasks every day. Solving the deficit, fighting discrimination, ending wars and seeking a more peaceful world. It can feel overwhelming just thinking about it— let alone figuring out where to even begin. As the story of Hanukkah goes, when the Maccabees returned to their Temple after the war, the first thing they needed to do was to re-light the eternal flame. But the needed oil was eight days away. It would be easy to despair, after years of fighting and now realizing they were lacking the resources needed to move forward.  But, as the story is told, the Maccabees decided it had been too long since the eternal light had been ignited and so they took a first step. Despite having only enough oil for one day, they committed themselves to starting the process of rededicating themselves and the Temple by starting where they were, and taking it one day at a time. Whether factually true or not, we celebrate the fact that the oil miraculously burned for the needed eight days until more oil could be made. But the miracle only happened after people took the first step. In this story, we are reminded of the words of the Talmud: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.” We each have a role to play in creating a better world by taking that first step, and then the next and the next.

  • Seeing the Miracles

The idea of miracles surround the holiday season.  Jews celebrate the oil that was meant to last for only one day burning brightly for eight days. When the menorah is lit, an opportunity is provided to tap into that miracle of light shattering the darkness and opening to a world of possibilities. This time of year is about the movement from darkness to light in both the spiritual and material world, and is strengthened by one’s own faith while creating space and celebration for the faiths of others. Whether it’s a Hanukkah menorah that we kindle, or a Christmas tree that we light or the candles we burn on a kinara in celebration of Kwanzaa, we reignite the flame of awe for the miracles before us every day, when we open our eyes and our hearts. We celebrate the miracle of friends and family whom we love and are loved by; the miracle of having the chance to learn something new every day; the miracle of our collective curiosity, creativity and compassion that moves us forward in both our individual and our collective stories. Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Too often, the holidays have become commercialized and the season can feel pressured with shopping and rushing and planning. Taking a step back can offer the opportunity to connect with the wisdom of tradition and to rekindle the spirit of today and the hope of tomorrow.

Ellen Frankel and Rabbi Baruch HaLevi are the co-authors of “Revolution of Jewish Spirit: How to Revive Ruakh in Your Spiritual Life, Transform Your Synagogue & Inspire Your Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights 2012).
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