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“Chanukah tells us that we must rededicate ourselves to the values of religious freedom.”
by Rabbi Martin Levy
Often I am asked, “why is Chanukah so early this year, or why will Chanukah be so late this year?” My considered response is to reassure our congregants, for Chanukah will be exactly on time this season, beginning precisely the night of the 25th of Kislev. We have been celebrating that day for more than 2000 years, so I guess we’re still on time! This December it so happens that the 25th day of Kislev falls on our English calendar day of Christmas. For this festival of freedom, we light candles for eight nights, so the final candles are lit on the evening of January 1st.
After we recite the Chanukah blessings, which accompany the lighting of candles, we add a prayer which contains an unusual sentence: “These candles are sacred and we are not permitted to put them to any use-we may only look upon them.”
Such a striking idea-we cannot use these lights for any practical purpose! We can’t read by it, nor have a meal by them, nor use them to kindle the Shabbat candles. How terribly non-practical this is. In our world, efficiency and success are measured by pragmatism, and the utilitarian value of every action or effort expended. Yet our Tradition tells us that the Chanukah lights are not to be used for anything; they are just to be admired.
Makes sense to me! How pragmatic were the Maccabees, who fought against the enticements of assimilation in the Roman Empire around 168 BCE? The Maccabees counseled their people: resist and cast off the yoke of Hellenism and assimilation. Others said, “why resist the Syrians, who are the proud bearers of the Greek culture, whose army was ready to destroy any Jewish desire for political freedom.” The Syrians were the wave of the future, the symbol of modernity. For many Jews, being a good citizen in the second century BCE meant dressing like a Greek, participating in the gymnasium, adopting Greek names, neglecting Jewish holidays, and following a Greco-Roman education.
Fortunately for us, the Maccabees expressed their own brand of impracticality. Their patriarch Mattathias declared: “Though all the heathens within the bounds of the royal domain obey him (Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian dictator) and each one forsakes the worship of his fathers…yet I, my sons and my family walk in the covenant of our fathers.”
This is truly one of the miracles of Chanukah: that a band of untrained fighters believed that security purchased at the cost of conscience meant the demise of their faith. These impractical people, ill-trained and poorly equipped, went forward to battle against a gigantic foe. By means of guerrilla tactics and the extraordinary support of the Almighty, the Maccabees defeated the Syrian troops.
Our success today is in large measure thanks to the impracticality and courage of countless generations who sacrificed and endured hardships in order to uphold their Jewish traditions. To place a Chanukah menorah in one’s windows in the Middle Ages symbolized courage, for too many were attacked for this simple example of religious observance.
According to our liturgical calendar, Chanukah is considered a minor holiday, because the book of the Maccabees was not included in the Hebrew Bible. But the message of Chanukah resonates with a powerful beat. Chanukah tells us that we must rededicate ourselves to the values of religious freedom. To me, this sense of freedom stands at the heart of our American experience. Enjoy your Chanukah celebration, and remind yourself of the fundamental value of freedom.