Chanukah, which began last night, is known as the Festival of Lights. It is an occasion for families to join together at home in lighting eight branched candelabras known as Chanukiyot, singing songs, and eating delicious foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. But what underlies all this fun and mirth? Why do we continue to celebrate this holiday 2000 years after the historical events that gave rise to its origins?
Chanukah is often perceived to be a celebration of religious freedom. The First and Second Books of Maccabees recount how a small band of Jews created an insurrection against the powerful Seleucid ruler Antioches IV in 167 BCE. Antioches had brought pagan worship to the Temple in Jerusalem and commanded Jews to give up their religious beliefs in order to assimilate with the predominant Greek culture. Mattathias, a Jewish priest in the town of Modi’in, refused to comply with an order to sacrifice to Greek gods, slaughtered the local governor who issued the order and a fellow Jew who had complied with it, and war broke out. Mattathias, his sons, and their followers who became known as the Maccabees, succeeded in defeating Antiochus, reclaiming the Temple and restoring Jewish sovereignty in Judea.
The rabbis who wrote the Talmud, the legal corpus spanning from roughly 300-700 CE, saw Chanukah differently. They ignored the Maccabees altogether, and instead focused on a miraculous occurrence at the time of the Temple rededication. Kosher oil was needed to light the Temple lamps, but there was only enough oil to last one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to complete the Temple rededication and to acquire fresh oil for future usage. The Sages, to celebrate this miracle, decreed that an eight day festival of praise and rejoicing should be commemorated annually.
So which is it — a holy war for freedom to practice one’s religion, or a miracle about oil? I would like to suggest a third option. Maybe we can view Chanukah through a broader lens, as a celebration of realizing the possibilities that exist all around us. Chanukah, at its core, is about embracing the agency each of us actually has over our lives. It is not only about choosing to practice our religion freely, or experiencing moments of Divine presence, but about the infinite number of possibilities we have, each and every day, to take action to better our lives and the lives of those around us.
Chanukah both symbolically and literally calls on us to shine forth light into the foreboding expanse of winter night, to usher in warmth and illumination and to cast out darkness and despair. On this Chanukah, may we all be blessed with daring to dream about the world we aspire to live in, and then taking audacious action to bring that world into existence.
Rabbi Joshua Ratner
Editor’s Note: Is it Hanukkah or Chanukah? The answer is that both are considered correct, according to Brittanica.com. Hanukkah is the most widely used spelling, while Chanukah is more traditional. In addition, more than 20 other variations are recorded.