Chanukah is a holiday with many names. Some call it the Festival of Lights, while others refer to it as the Feast of Rededication or the Holiday of Miracles. Its multiplicity of names suggests a variety meanings.
The historical version of Chanukah, recorded in the Book of Maccabees, chronicles the triumph of Mattathias the High Priest, his five Maccabean sons and a small group of Jewish insurgents over the army of Syrian King Antiochus, who in 168 B.C.E. desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and issued decrees prohibiting Jewish worship, circumcision and Shabbat observance. On the 25th of Kislev, the Jews restored the Holy Temple and rededicated it to God. We learn from this version that through acts of defiance, the Jewish people can overcome oppression and live with dignity as Jews.
Another version of Chanukah focuses on the internal strife between Jews as they struggled to define what practices were acceptable for Jews living within a foreign culture. The concept of Jews disagreeing as to what being a Jew means is not a new one. In the first few centuries B.C.E., Hellenism and its social, economic and political influences encouraged many Jews to compromise and abandon Jewish rituals and practices. Some Jews attended the gymnasium, often participating in nude sporting events, which required reversals of circumcision. The Maccabean fight was not just against non-Jewish oppression, but against highly assimilated Jews whose conduct threatened the continued existence of the Jewish people.
Almost 400 years later, the Talmudic rabbis gave the Chanukah story yet a different spin. Their version doesn’t even mention the Macabbees or assimilation, focusing instead on the role faith in God played as the key to Jewish survival. We are taught that “a great miracle happened there” when a small cruse of oil lasted for eight days, until more was found to keep the Temple’s menorah lit. The eight candles we light on our menorah remind us that we have survived over time because of our faith in God’s saving power.
The significance of light itself is another aspect of the Chanukah story. At the darkest time of the calendar year, Jews come together with family and friends to bring light, hope and joy into their homes. For eight consecutive nights, we add an additional candle, increasing our ability to fight against winter’s darkness.
It is written in Proverbs 20:27 that “the human spirit is God’s candle.” I take this to mean that each of us has the capacity to bring light and goodness, joy and compassion, into the world. Through our thoughts, actions and relationships, we can illuminate other lives even in the darkest of times.
The shamash is the special candle on the menorah that ignites the other candles and is traditionally elevated over the other eight. This year when you light the shamash, imagine for a moment that you have the power to become “God’s candle.” What would it mean to light up the world around you with hope and possibilities? Your efforts don’t have to be time consuming or expensive, but consider these eight small efforts that can make a difference in our world:
Show respect for the ideas, time and values of others, even when you disagree;
Admit when you are wrong;
Laugh at yourself, especially when you feel overwhelmed;
Avoid harmful speech and gossip;
Be authentic in your feelings and relationships;
Donate food, clothing, time or money to organizations in need;
Visit a friend who is lonely or sick;
Look for a blessing in your life every single day and be grateful for it!
Each night as you watch the candles glow, remember that you have the power to bring light, dignity and justice into the world.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson and serves as a legacy consultant for the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at www.amyhirshberglederman.com.