The holiday season is upon us and for Jews this means that the festival of Hanukkah will begin on the eve of December 16th. Hanukkah is an oft misunderstood holiday outside of the Jewish community. Christians in the community usually mistake the holiday for the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. These two holidays do indeed fall within close proximity to one another and there are superficial similarities such as decorations of a festival nature. These similarities are as far as these two holidays come to being parallel. Unlike Christmas, which is a significant holiday to Christians, Hanukkah is a minor and insignificant holiday for Jews. The theme of the holiday is not so much supernatural as it is based upon the ancient battle against oppression and persecution that was fought against the Assyrian Greeks by the Jewish Maccabees.Hanukkah is the festival of “renewal” and was instituted by Judas Maccabeus in the year 164 BCE. The story of Hanukkah begins after the death of Alexander the Great when the Greek empire was split up amongst his generals and the inheritor of the region of Judea was a malevolent ruler known as Antiochus Epiphanes. History says that Antiochus slew forty thousand Jews in Judea and sold forty thousand more as slaves. He also desecrated the Jewish Temple by removing the doors from the innermost Holy place, sacrificed a pig upon the altar and sprinkling its blood around the Temple area.
Three years later a Jewish revolt broke out by a resistance group then known as the Maccabees, named after their initial leader Judas Maccabeus. The Maccabees were an ancient Priesthood that led Jew in revolt against a large aggressive foreign force which decried Jewish expression of thought and worship. Using tactics of guerilla warfare the Maccabees defeated the substantially larger Greek forces to regain their independence and to re-consecrate the Jewish Temple which had been defiled by Greek idols. The ancient Temple was re-dedicated with great festivity and frivolity. This celebration continued for eight days and was such a significant celebration that the Jewish historian Josephus remarked that this festival was also referred to as the Festival of Lights on account of the entire city of Jerusalem being illuminated by the festivities.
Today Jews commemorate this event from our past by remembering the difficult challenges that the Jewish people have faced throughout history and the consistent manner in which we have always overcome and survived. Hanukkah is not merely about surviving though but also about acknowledging the importance of both religious and civil liberties. The spirit of Hanukkah demands respect is given for the autonomy of the individual in choosing to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience and conviction. The American government protects this right by restricting its own powers and those of others who would seek to persecute religious minorities. This makes the United States unique among the many nations in the world as a nation of religious freedom and a federal power which delineates between the institution of religion and the powers of governance.
Hanukkah also teaches Jews the principle of each human being as a Mikdash katan- a Temple in microcosm. Each of us is to purify our hearts and our minds from the idolatry of the ego in order to attain to greater levels of altruism via service to others.
Lastly, Hanukkah is a commemoration of Divine benevolence as opposed to the malevolence of Antiochus who desired to steal away the religious culture and tradition from the Jewish people. In Judaism there is a custom of lighting candles which is based on a legendary event wherein the miraculous nature of the Hanukkah event was approved by the Creator via an unnatural occurrence of oil in the Temple menorah burning longer than naturally possible. The Rabbi’s invented this legend to focus our minds away from the militant nature of the historical event and to refocus our minds on the Divine Providence which is embedded in the entire historicity of the Hanukkah story. Each of is lives under the care of both general and particular Providence and therein we may find a place of respite against the troubles of our transient lives. The Light of the Creator’s benevolence will always outshine the darkness of human malevolence.
This Hanukkah season I am thankful to celebrate this festival of liberty with my fellow Jews and I am no less thankful to be a citizen of the USA. Chag Sameach… Happy Holidays!