You’ve been granted free access to this subscribers only article.
Hanukkah: Five lessons of the holiday to unwrap
Hanukkah, or the Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Temple and relighting of the eternal flame after many years of oppression. It celebrates the miracle of the menorah remaining lit for eight days, with only enough oil to last for a single day.
By Ellen Frankel and
Rabbi Baruch HaLevi
Hanukkah begins on the Hebrew calendar date of 25 Kislev and lasts for eight days. This year, the holiday is celebrated from Dec. 8-16.
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 retaking and rededicating of the Temple in Jerusalem and relighting the seven-branched candelabrum, 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.
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 Sept. 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 burned 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.
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?”
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.
The first step
Every day, we are faced with daunting tasks. 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 relight 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.
The idea of miracles surrounds 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). For more, visit www.revolutionofjewishspirit.com.
Your Opinions and Comments
Be the first to comment on this story!
You must be logged in to post a comment.
South Texas Living Archives
Canine care helps heal community’s most vulnerable (May 25, 2016)
Divine healing training June 2-4 (May 25, 2016)
Future collectibles (May 25, 2016)
Getting past a stroke (May 25, 2016)
Let your imagination take shape May 30, June 30 (May 25, 2016)
Musical Club tours Helmke home (May 25, 2016)
Ousley fund-raiser May 28 (May 25, 2016)
Picnic and memorial service (May 25, 2016)
Save the date for June 2 Opry Jam (May 25, 2016)
Small town, big hearts (May 25, 2016)
The stuff of which sausage is made (May 25, 2016)
Unwind, de-stress with coffee and crayons (May 25, 2016)
What you can do to prevent asthma (May 25, 2016)
Witness live wrestling at Retama Park (May 25, 2016)
Attend the 38th annual Bluebonnet Fest Parade May 21 (May 18, 2016)
Baptist church plans Men’s, Women’s Day (May 18, 2016)
Cocktail dress (May 18, 2016)
Desperate search for old photo reveals city’s lack of memorabilia (May 18, 2016)
Learn about gardening practices (May 18, 2016)
Play golf for Peanut Festival (May 18, 2016)
Setting forth in search of froth (May 18, 2016)
Sign up for Summer Reading! (May 18, 2016)
Sutherland Springs bank bandits sentenced (May 18, 2016)
Tickets on sale for June 21 Taste of Seguin (May 18, 2016)
Boldtville Church Yard Sale is May 14 (May 11, 2016)
Create interactive games, stories with Scratch (May 11, 2016)
Enter 2017 Fiesta Poster Contest (May 11, 2016)
Extraordinary minds teaching our kids (May 11, 2016)
Healing ADD without medication (May 11, 2016)
Luffa vase (May 11, 2016)
May means dancing in Geronimo (May 11, 2016)
Meet the Miss La Vernia contestants (May 11, 2016)
Resurrection UMC plans Fun Fest (May 11, 2016)
Spring comes to Blue Bonnet Club (May 11, 2016)
Swing dance in Seguin (May 11, 2016)
Tracking down a little history in Hobson (May 11, 2016)
Union Valley meeting set (May 11, 2016)
Basketball tournament May 14 (May 4, 2016)
Boy Scout celebration stirs up memories (May 4, 2016)
British Royals (May 4, 2016)
Celebrating decades of memories and music with the‘Texas Top Hands’ (May 4, 2016)
Create a yard with bird appeal (May 4, 2016)
Cruise into Floresville for Lions Car Show (May 4, 2016)
Find cheap books at Sidewalk Sale (May 4, 2016)
Hear six pianos in one room May 7 (May 4, 2016)
Hermann Sons Casino Night to benefit CASA (May 4, 2016)
Road Runners plan May group runs (May 4, 2016)
‘Battle for Texas’ now open in SA (May 4, 2016)
‘Lily pads’ for kids (May 4, 2016)