By Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, Senior Rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom of Falls Church
Chanukah is, by far, the favorite holiday of Jewish children everywhere! No one will be surprised by this fact. The nightly shimmering candles, the games of dreidel (a spinning top), the oh-so-delicious latkes (potato pancakes), and eight nights of presents bring light, joy, and fun into every household. Few people are aware that Chanukah is actually a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar whose origins don’t include presents but do include themes that both inspire and challenge us each year.
The historic context for the events that are commemorated during the holiday is set around 167 BCE. At this time, the people of Israel, who lived in Judea, were semi-autonomous. While they had some independence in their lives, they were mostly under the firm control of the Seleucid Empire, led by Antiochus IV Epiphanies. Over time, Antiochus clamped down on Jewish life creating restrictions for Jewish observance and study. A group of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, banded together to fight against these oppressive and immoral restrictions. Their revolt lasted a few years, and, in 165 BCE, they regained freedom for the Jewish people, liberating Jerusalem and rededicating the sacred Temple there that had been defiled by the Seleucids.
When the Maccabees entered their ruined Temple, they realized that cleaning and restoring their holy space would take many days. Looking around they found only one cruse of the oil needed to light the Temple’s sacred light. According to sacred legend, this cruse lasted not one, but eight nights – enough time to repair the Temple and rededicate it for its intended Jewish purpose. Chanukah means “dedication” and the eight days connect to the miracle of the sustaining oil.
Often this story is the lead narrative when celebrating the holiday at home as well as when we explain the holiday to our non-Jewish neighbors and friends. We love the saga of a small group of Maccabees, the underdogs, defeating the organized and well-outfitted Seleucid soldiers. We love the idea of this miracle – an unexpected marvel that suggests that when our mission is for the good and the sacred, God will ‘shine a light’ for us and upon us for our righteous deeds.
But this year, I see the observance of the holiday through a different lens. The Maccabees came together in a time when their religious freedoms were being denied. They fought against those who believed that there was only one way to worship God, one way to pursue the holy, one right path. Perhaps the Seleucids felt threatened by the presence of another tradition. Perhaps they wanted to diminish those who were different – had different values, lived different lives, saw the world differently.
The context of Chanukah is not something of the past. We still live in a world where some groups do not tolerate the existence of those of us who are different in creed or in deed. The light of Chanukah is diminished by the reality that Jews, and many other minority communities, continue to face harassment and discrimination. This year has seen a significant rise in intolerance, prejudice and hate crimes specifically in the form of antisemitism. Last year, there were nearly 3000 antisemitic incidents – attacks on synagogues, Jewish community centers, and individual members of Jewish communities. This statistic is 34% higher than the preceding year.
While the events that likely come to mind are the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh or the hostages in Colleyville, Texas, the heinous words of rapper Kanye West or the misguided movie advice of basketball star Kyrie Irving, the majority of incidents take place on a smaller scale in schools and on playgrounds, in offices and on neighborhood streets. For many Jews, this is a scary and distressing time.
During the eight nights of Chanukah, Jewish tradition instructs those lighting menorahs to display their special candelabra in the window of their home. There are many reasons for this – to highlight the miracle which brings a feeling of hope, to increase the light symbolically and physically, and to affirm a story of good over evil. When Jews display their menorah in their front windows they are also saying to the world, “This is who I am, and this is my story.” In today’s climate, one wonders if this message will be embraced or rejected, welcomed or shunned. It is sad to think that some Jews will keep their lit menorahs from view out of concern for intolerance or in fear for their safety.
Many traditions are entering holiday seasons along with the Jewish community. In the spirit of the Maccabees, may we do all we can to ensure religious freedom and tolerance. Let us encourage one another to display our traditions proudly and use this time to learn about and embrace our diversity. May all have the freedom to celebrate openly and in joy.
Wishing everyone a happy and safe holiday season,