The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins tonight. While Hanukkah is a “minor holiday” in Judaism, it seems to get more attention than weightier Jewish holidays like Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. This is largely an American phenomenon, and as such I’ve always assumed that it’s because Hanukkah occurs within a week or two of Christmas. In the American holiday season spirit, Hanukkah gets promoted to new levels of importance.
However, perhaps there is more than meets the eye.
In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire looted and defiled the temple in Jerusalem and banned numerous Jewish religious practices. The goal was Hellenization. The Maccabees, a small group of Jewish rebels, overpowered Antiochus and his forces and reclaimed their temple in Jerusalem. The temple stood for another 237 years until it fell to Rome in 70 CE.
Hanukkah is the annual celebration to mark the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids, or more specifically, the ancient reacquisition of the temple in Jerusalem. But why celebrate an ancient victory when its results were short-lived? I can understand why the Jews would have celebrated Hanukkah prior to the destruction of the temple, but why is it still observed today?
There’s an old saying that if you ask two Jews a question, you’ll get three different answers. One of the things that I enjoy tremendously about Judaism is that there are no questions off limits. We ask many questions in the pursuit of knowledge, truth and an understanding of God.
In that spirit, imagine standing in 71 CE, the year after the destruction of the temple, hundreds if not thousands of miles away from Jerusalem, which lay in ruins, and lighting Hanukkah candles. Seems absurd, right? But that really happened. Why? In the midst of destruction, why celebrate something that no longer is?
A similar question can be asked of the Jews during the Holocaust who faithfully celebrated Passover (the festival of freedom) in the Warsaw Ghetto, where they experienced anything but freedom. Or the Jews who celebrated the holiday of Simchat Torah (a holiday of joy) in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the furthest place on earth from joy.
The answer is that a Jew lives with hope. As bleak as the present may be, a Jew always remembers the glorious past and awaits a triumphant future. For close to 2,000 years the Jewish people have been living in exile. Yet every year we joyfully celebrate a blip in Jewish chronology when the Maccabees rededicated the glorious temple in Jerusalem. It may sound antiquated, but how many nations do you know who have survived and thrived in exile for so long?
Hope brings powerful healing effects to the sick, and hope can be the strongest motivator for the downtrodden and abused. Hope can bring comfort in times of sorrow, and can be a powerful stimulus for change.
The Maccabees possessed both a deeply religious hope as well as an uncompromising hope. They didn’t have hope or faith in themselves. That would have been a suicide mission. Rather, they had hope and faith in God.
They did not accept their less than ideal state as the status quo. Not only did they want the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit, they wanted to do it the best way possible, with all the bells and whistles.
They did not hope that things would be better. They hoped that things would be the best. That is Jewish hope.
No doubt there is a place in the world for compromise. No healthy relationship can succeed, and no nation can thrive, without both sacred ideals and willingness to compromise. But compromise does not mean abandoning one’s core values or giving up one’s hopes for a perfect tomorrow.
Why has Hanukkah become such a prominent Jewish holiday in the American landscape of religion? Perhaps because we all recognize the power of hope. Hope in the Almighty, and hope in achieving the perfect world.
Moshe Davis is the rabbi of Brith Sholom Beth Israel in downtown Charleston. He can be reached at bsbisynagogue.com.