Kehillah Hanukkah 2020
A Hanukkah Message
We celebrate two miracles on Hanukkah, miracles that sometimes seem at odds with each other. The first is a guerrilla uprising against occupation and forced assimilation. In the late 2nd century BCE, the Hellenistic King Antiochus banned Jewish religious practices and placed an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some Jews complied and abandoned their traditions; others rose up in a popular rebellion led by the Maccabees. The rebellion succeeded, and in 164 BCE the Maccabee fighters captured and rededicated the Temple. “Hanukkah” means “rededication.”
The first Hanukkah celebration was a delayed celebration of Sukkot, which the fighters had been unable to mark in the Temple. That is why Hanukkah is eight days long: in the Book of Maccabees, the holiday is described as “the festival of Sukkot celebrated in the month of Kislev.” This brings us to the second miracle: only one flask of oil was left to burn in the Temple’s Menorah, but that oil lasted for eight days.
While the first miracle of Hanukkah emphasizes the importance of maintaining our own traditions, the second miracle of Hanukkah brings us closer together to the experience of many other peoples. At this time of year, many cultures celebrate festivals of lights in holidays such as Diwali and Christmas. We light candles to ward off the darkness and to celebrate that light is returning. The days will soon begin to grow longer again. Each night we add a bit more light, adding our own labor to the turning of the year already beginning.
The Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz (1852-1915), in his story “The Hanukkah Light,” suggests that the two miracles might be reconciled. The story’s protagonist is a tutor who teaches the miracle of resistance to a young boy, whose father wants his son to learn the apolitical miracle of light instead. (Indeed, some say that the Talmud invents the miracle of light as a way of discouraging interest in resistance.) The tutor then discusses with his student’s older sister:
“You are against assimilation, then?” she asks.
“To assimilate,” I reply, “is to consume, to eat, to digest. We assimilate beef and bread, and others wish to assimilate us—to eat us up like bread and meat.”
She is silent for a few seconds, and then she asks anxiously:
“But will there always, always be wars and dissensions between the nations?”
“O no!” I answer, ” one point they must all agree—in the end.”
“And that is?”
“Humanity. When each is free to follow his own bent, then they will all agree.”
For Peretz’s protagonist, even the miracle of resistance augurs a brighter future of coexistence and pluralism. The Hanukkah lights, alongside the lights of other peoples, remind us of that future. The Hanukkah story of resistance reminds us that we have to work for that future too, against the forces that divide humanity.
We are in a dark time of year figuratively as well as literally. The next weeks and months will bring more loss from COVID-19. Additionally, recent protests following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have led many in our society to become more aware of the damaging effects of the violence of racism.
This Hanukkah, we cling tightly to the hope that more light is coming. Just as the Maccabees had to delay their celebration of Sukkot, we too have to delay our celebrations this year. Or else we have to transform and rededicate them. By gathering together over Zoom, lighting virtual windows as well as physical ones, we are also participating in a miracle of preservation. In staying apart and stopping the virus’s spread, we conserve limited medical resources in support of extending life. Just as our hands light one more candle each night to urge on the increase of light, we can join together with others to fight the other forces of darkness in our society.