My 4-year-old son is obsessed with superheroes, dressing up at every opportunity as the superhero du jour to do battle with the bad guys lurking around the corner. (My 2-year-old daughter is just as enthusiastic, but at her age all she can really muster is a “meanie” face.)
From a developmental perspective, I know this fantasy play is his way of exercising control over a world he is learning is
increasingly out of his control. But I also see other qualities — his desire to be strong, to stand up for the good guys — in short, to be courageous.
Becoming courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It develops when children have opportunities to stand up for what’s right and to take responsible risks. Through
experiences my husband and I provide, and the stories we tell them, we can lay some groundwork.
As I think about a central message of the Chanukah story and the way I want to portray it to my kids, models of courage abound. From Judah Maccabee, to Judith and Hannah and her seven sons, heroes and heroines fought for the right to be different, to be Jews who refused to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture.
When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, and observance of the most basic mitzvot (circumcision, Shabbat celebration and kashrut) were turned into capital offenses, their acts of courage formed the basis of a central narrative of the Chanukah story that has been passed down through the generations.
Consider Judah Macabee, whose army with a bunch of Jewish soldiers used guerrilla tactics and religious zeal to defeat the stronger Assyrian Greek army. He forced the Assyrian Greeks to rescind the policies that forbade Jewish practice, and in 164 BCE liberated the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to a place of Jewish worship.
Consider Judith, who did her part to prevent the siege of Jerusalem in her hometown of Bethulia by seducing Holfenes, the Assyrian Greek army general, and then decapitating him. Her bravery is so highly esteemed by the rabbis that it is because of her that Jewish women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.
And consider Hannah and her seven sons, who refused to bow down to Zeus and Antiochus and eat non-kosher meat. The Book of Maccabees relates that each of her sons and then her mother were tortured to death.
“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask. “One who overcomes his urges?” (Mishna, Pirkei Avot 4:1)
Overcoming our most natural desires and exercising personal restraint is another kind of heroism. This is a kind of everyday courage.
When we are present in a difficult conversation with someone we care about — even though our impulse is to leave — we are heros. When we resist the urge to say something that we know will offend another person, even if we think it is warranted, we are courageous. When we have vowed not to feed a habit that is destructive, and when tempted and resist (a smoke, an extra piece of chocolate cake), we are being our own heroes.
This Chanukah, celebrate all of the dimensions of courage by dedicating each night to one of them:
Candle 1 to the classic Chanukah heroes of Judah Maccabee, Judith and Hannah.
Candle 2 to the courageous acts of our children who welcome a new kid to the school, speak out against bullying or have faith that the next day at school might be a little better than today.
Candle 3 to someone in your community who fought for a cause you believe in.
Candle 4 to someone in your family — perhaps a parent or grandparent — and a courageous act they performed during their lives.
Candle 5 to American and Israeli soldiers who are fighting to protect values and ideals that are sacred to us.
Candle 6 to the courage that you have exercised by restraint — with a co-worker, spouse, child, friend or parent.
Candle 7 to a person in your life who most exemplifies courage.
Candle 8 to that quality of courage in ourselves that enables us to bring light into dark places and for the energy to stoke the embers of our own sense of courage.