Well, here comes the 25th day of the month of Kislev. This means the beginning of the 8 nights of Chanukah…Hanukkah…Hanukah…Hannuk AHHH! Well, however you want to spell it is fine with me, although I was told that the agreed upon spelling according to the Union for Reform Judaism is “Hanukkah.” So, I suppose I will run with that one. I have already mentioned Hanukkah in this blog quite a bit, and how it is not the “Jewish Christmas,” and how it is actually a relatively minor festival in Judaism, and how it has become so ingrained into secular popular culture due to its usual correspondence with Christmas. I won’t continue to beat that with a hammer.
Speaking of hammers…The Maccabees. Most of you have probably heard of this famous Jewish crew. By the way, Maccabee means “hammer,” so Judah the Maccabee had a pretty tremendous nickname. Without getting into every detail of the Hanukkah story (that’s a quick Google), we know that around 200 BCE, Judea, which is now the land of Israel was under the control of the Greek-Syrian King Antiochus III. As it turns out, baby Antiochus IV was a bit harsher than his dad. Once in power, this malicious king decided to outlaw the Jewish religion completely, and eventually went on to massacre many, and ultimately destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the most sacred place in all of Judaism. Jewish holy leader Mattathias and five of his sons, Judah included, decided that they had had enough of this, and led a revolt against Antiochus and his army. Judah took over the Maccabee army when his father passed, earning his nickname through guerrilla warfare and hard-nosed battle tactics. Eventually the Maccabees took back the Temple, but it was certainly left in shambles by the Greek idol worshiping enemies.
There are many interpretations regarding what the 8 nights of Hanukkah actually represent. Many believe that a miracle occurred. The Ner Tamid, or eternal light, had gone out in the Temple, along with the Temple’s menorah. There supposedly existed only one night’s worth of oil left, but that bit lasted for 8 nights as the rebuilding of the Temple began. Hanukkah literally translates to “dedication,” as in the dedication of the Temple after its destruction.
* If you are interested in cool tidbits, check out a dreidel the next time you come across one. The Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin appear.
These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” or, “A Great Miracle Happened There.” In Israel, the phrase would be “Nes Gadol Haya Po”, or “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”*
OK, so we have talked a bit about the Hanukkah story. So, why celebrate it? As many Rabbis and scholars would agree, this is a time to be proud of your Judaism. During his Drashah on Friday night, our Rabbi mentioned (this is not verbatim) how Jews would never be fully accepted in America. This seems like an intense statement, and it certainly is. But when looking at Judaism across history, he is right on the money. The Jewish people have always operated a bit outside of assimilated society, and the Jews are often scapegoated, oppressed, or even massacred. But through sheer force of will, dedication to tradition, miracles, or some other divine occurrence, the Jews survive and prevail. How many groups have been consistently persecuted for thousands of years, have never truly been the majority population, and have survived as a proud and in tact people? Even if one does not ascribe to the story of Hanukkah, or any other story that they have not viewed with empirical evidence, history tells us that Judaism is a miracle.
Just as the Maccabees were steadfast in their beliefs, even in the face of imminent danger, Jews of today can apply this directly to our own lives. It might be “easy” or “safe” to assimilate completely into dominant culture. It might save a few difficult conversations with our children if we were to just grin and bear it. But the Jew has never given in. In a society that is rife with antisemitism, partisanship and prejudice, we must face the modern Antiochus’ with the same zeal and determination as Judah and his brothers did.
This is by no means a call to war, but simply a call to remember. Remember that being Jewish has never been simple and easy. Being Jewish has never been popular. But it is important to be proud, because being Jewish is truly a miracle.
Chag Chanukah Sameach,