By Rabbi Rob Lennick, D.Min.
“Extinguish the Darkness”
Hanukkah is a story about the few overcoming the many; a tale of beating the odds; a saga of resistance; a testimony to the indomitable spirit of the Jewish People. When the Syrian Greeks or Seleucids advanced into Israel in the 2nd century BCE, their intention was to assimilate all of the Jews into Hellenistic culture. There were some Jews of the time that welcomed the fresh and interesting aspects of Greek culture and there were those Jews who vigilantly resisted. Over time there grew a tension in the Jewish community between the pro and anti-assimilationists.
Eventually, it became clear to the Seleucids that assimilation was not proceeding as quickly as they wanted so they began to force the Jews into submission. Not only were forms of Jewish practice outlawed, the Seleucid army took over the Jerusalem Temple in 167 BCE, set up statues to use it for worship to the Greek pantheon and proceeded to desecrate it by offering the sacrifice of a pig on an altar to Zeus.
Trouble then began on two fronts: The Jewish community was divided over Hellenization and almost at the point of civil war. And a strong resistance to Hellenistic tyranny emerged under the courageous urging of a local Kohen, a Jewish Priest, Mattathias and carried out by his five sons, led by Judah Maccabee. Eventually a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus IV, the Hellenistic king of the Seleucid empire.
In the end, the Maccabees were victorious. The few overcame the many, beating the odds in a saga of resistance. This was just one of many times in history when the invincible spirit of the Jewish People was prevailed.
As the lore of Hanukkah goes, in the year 165 BCE, after beating back the Seleucids, the Maccabees set out to clean the Jerusalem Temple and set it back up for Jewish worship. As Jewish tradition had taught them, they wanted to have a formal dedication of the Temple back to Jewish practice. The word for “dedication,” in Hebrew is, “Hanukkah,” thus the holiday gets its name. And as legend holds, when they took the one chalice of oil certified by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, and used it to light the Eternal Light, the Ner Tamid, miraculously the oil sufficient for a single day burned for eight days. Thus, we celebrate eight days of Hanukkah to remember the eight-day miracle. That is the history and legend.
But, what about Hanukkah’s meaning?
Hanukkah has relevance in both universalistic and Jewish terms. The story is important for all people because it is about religious freedom and self-determination. It is about the essence of liberty, namely, freedom of thought and faith that are the inherent human right of every person. Hanukkah is about standing up to tyranny in all forms. It is about our mutual responsibility, across all faith traditions, ethnicities, races, creeds, abilities or personal identities – to defend the freedom of the mind. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the original 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” The Hanukkah story is testimony to this fact and reminds us of the responsibility we all share to protect this creed.
For Jews, Hanukkah is also about tenacity in maintaining our identity, especially in the face of those who would squelch and even attempt to destroy it. As I write this, there are incidents of antisemitism daily around the globe. Daily! In tumultuous and uncertain times, Jews have before been scapegoats, and yet again, in our time, we are targets. ADL states that, “the recent increase in global anti-Semitism is due to the triple threat of extreme right nationalism, extreme left antisemitism, often in the guise of anti-Israel rhetoric, and violent Islamist radicalism.” It is real and it is growing.
How do we respond? First, we do all we can to secure our institutions, our synagogues, our schools, our JCCs, Hillel houses and every place where Jews gather. Thankfully our community here has taken extraordinary measures to increase security. We also have very strong partnerships with law enforcement, intelligence and protective services to secure our community. And while we have been shocked to the core with the murderous antisemitic hatred carried out in Pittsburg, Poway, Germany and other places, we also have stories of how the coordinated systems of detection and protection have prevailed and prevented such tragedy. In fact, right here, in our own Federation community that extends throughout New Mexico and the southern portion of Colorado, we have witnessed a great miracle resulting from the incredible work of the FBI: In Pueblo, CO, Temple Emanuel, the second oldest, continuously running synagogue in Colorado was the target of a bombing that was thwarted. The FBI connected with the perpetrator online, intervened with this person through an undercover operation and ultimately interceded and arrested this hatemongering, white supremacist, antisemite. The system worked. Thank G-d.
Our response, however, must go beyond heightened security.
Second, Hanukkah gives us pause to remember what makes us Jewish to begin with: Our true belief that repairing this world, Tikkun Olam actually matters; that every person can make the world a better place; that the good will prevail if we proffer goodness, meaning we have a responsibility to extinguish the darkness in the world at every turn. Hanukkah reminds us that we, as Jews, are the bearers and sharers of light.
Take note of the Hanukkah candle that lights the others: the “SHAMASH.” Every Jew has the the privilege of being the SHAMASH in our own circles of life, and to live out the essential Jewish ideal that giving is the way to receive.
So, on this Hanukkah and every day…YOU are a SHAMASH that can extinguish the darkness through sharing the light of empathy, caring and giving; through sharing your blessings with others. That is why the Jewish People is called a, “Light to the Nations.” As from time immemorial, through trial and tribulation, blessing and joy, let us resolve to continue to bring forth our individual and collective light as Jews and lead the way in extinguishing the darkness!
Loretta and I send our warmest wishes to you and yours this Hanukkah Season.