Many Americans seem to think they know everything there is to know about Hanukkah. They know that the Jewish people’s Festival of Lights coincides with the tsunami of lights and good cheer they experience leading up to Christmas and New Year’s. They know that Jewish kids, minus the tree, also get gifts – eight nights of gifts!
But here is the real story: the Jewish Festival of Lights recalls the improbable victory of a small band of Jews in the land of Israel during the second century BCE against a Syrian-Greek king who had outlawed all public Jewish rituals, including circumcision and the learning of sacred texts – and who even installed a statue of Zeus defiling the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Against all odds, led by a fearless Judah Maccabee, the faithful defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God – and they did all of this with only one small jar of undefiled oil. The oil lasted for eight days. Hence Chag Ha’urim - the Festival of Lights.
Through 2,000 years of bitter exile, Jews scattered to the four corners of the world – even during the Nazi Holocaust and in the depths of the Siberian Soviet Gulag – have lighted the menorah to bring a flicker of hope, even in our darkest hours, that Jewish destiny, like the Maccabees of old, would somehow prevail.
Indeed, still in 2018, we Jews need reassurance and inspiration. In Europe, anti-Semitism is so severe that many Jews no longer wear a kippah or Star of David in the streets of Paris, Copenhagen, London, Stockholm, or Berlin, for fear of harassment or violent attack.
Just days ago, a Jewish fraternity’s Hanukkah Menorah was desecrated at Penn State University by anti-Semites. Indeed, Jewish students across the United States who dare to express their solidarity with the reborn Jewish State are subject to intimidation by extremists and campus thought police who slander Israel as an Apartheid State.
In the wake of the Pittsburg Synagogue massacre, Jews need to rekindle their solidarity with each other and reboot our faith in a better future.
Meanwhile, Jewish children living adjacent to Gaza have had to run for shelter day and night as thousands of rockets target them with deadly missiles, and explosive-laden balloons, sometimes filled with toys and with lights affixed to them, have torched crops, forests and nature preserves. Their simple prayer: eight days of quiet.
Israelis still have to send their 18-year-old boys and girls to defend a nation one-twentieth the size of California from terrorists and an implacable Iranian regime – a regime whose Supreme Leader labels Israel a ”cancer” and whose soldiers and Hezbollah lackeys threaten Israel’s north with more missiles than 27-member states of NATO possess.
Our Rabbis have insisted that Hanukkah lights must be visible to the public. They debate (of course) over this as to who the target audience is: Fellow Jews or our gentile neighbors?
In 2018, the answer is both:
In the wake of the Pittsburg Synagogue massacre, the specter of religious Jews being beaten up on New York streets, the extreme anti-Israel and anti-Semitic campaigns on campuses and online, Jews need to rekindle their solidarity with each other and reboot our faith in a better future.
Jews from Tel Aviv to Toronto to Tokyo to Trenton rekindle the light to push back against the lie of “occupation” of the Holy Land. Judah Maccabee’s heroism is but one amazing chapter in the unbreakable 3,500-year love affair Jews have with the land of Israel.
We also light for our fellow Americans, our wonderful neighbors, who overwhelmingly stand with us against history’s oldest hate, who hold sacred so many of the values that have sustained us in good times and bad.
And this year our Hanukkah lights also send a message both new and old to the anti-Semites: It is the forces of faith and decency—not you-- who will prevail!
To our fellow Jews and fellow Americans, accept our Hanukkah blessings. Enjoy the light and warmth of freedom and faith!