Hanukkah: Not Quite the Jewish Christmas

"Oh, I know all about Hanukkah," she said. "It's the Jewish Christmas." Not quite. Hard to believe in a materialistic age but Hanukkah's origins have absolutely nothing to do with gift-giving.
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"Oh, I know all about Hanukkah," she said. "It's the Jewish Christmas." Not quite. Hard to believe in a materialistic age but Hanukkah's origins have absolutely nothing to do with gift-giving. Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication and rededication, celebrates and commemorates one of the first recorded fights for religious freedom; the successful revolt of an assimilated but strongly identifying Jewish minority against the much stronger cultural majority of the Seleucid Greeks.

How very different from an ancient midrash to the effect that at time of the destruction of the first Temple, young priests seeing the Temple in flames ascended to the top of the walls surrounding the Temple, acknowledged their failure to be worthy custodians and in a gesture of contrition, threw the keys to the Temple skyward, cried out to God in defeat and resignation, "Here, You take these!" A hand appeared to extend from heaven to receive them; the priests fell from their perch to expire in the flames engulfing the Temple (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 29a).

Compare this story with the account in I Maccabees 4:36-60, following the defeat of the Seleuid Greeks and their allies:

And Judas and his brothers said, "Now that our enemies are crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it." And the whole army gathered together, and they went up to Mount Zion... he appointed priests that were without blemish and adherents of the Law, and they purified the sanctuary and carried out the stones that had defiled it to an unclean place... And they took whole stones, as the Law required and built a new altar like the former one... And Judas and his brothers and all the congregation of Israel decreed that the days of rededication of the altar should be observed at their season, every year, for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, with gladness and joy.

Of course, there is the more familiar story in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b, telling us of the priests entering the Temple precincts and finding but one cruse of holy oil marked with the seal of the High Priest and miraculous eight-day flame in the menorah. What vital piece of information is missing: Just who was it that hid the cruse? And why did he or she hide and protect it? Could it be that he or she (or they) saw himself or herself (or themselves) as holding the future of Judaism in trust, quite literally in their sacred possession?

How is it that we view Judaism and Jewish history? Some would leave it all up to God, others would have it dependant individually and collectively on Jews. "Ayn somkhim al ha-nes" teach our Sages, "don't depend on miracles." While there are miracles that daily attend us, it is our responsibility to care for Judaism and assure the future of the Jewish people, to watch over it, to guard it and protect it, to know that it is safe. To each and everyone one of us in entrusted the sacred task of caring for the cruse that will yet illuminate the world.

By extension, how do we view our world and our place in it? Do we depend on miracles and leave everything to God? Or, while heeding Solomon Schechter's advice to "leave a little to God," do we work to make a difference?

In the Hanukkah ritual, there is a candle called the shammash, the "helper candle." On each of the nights of Hanukkah, the shammash is used to kindle the lights for each successive night. Well in advance of Michael Cronon, Lab126 and the branding of the best-selling Kindle, we Jews have been commanded to kindle the lights of Hanukkah. As the shammash touches each successive candle, the flame from the helper merges with as yet unlit candle; the flame rises higher. One on one, person to person, we are to light and ignite, to fuel and to turn on those with whom we have contact -- we are all shemmashot, we are all helper candles. Our job is to set others on fire, to spark and kindle within them all that can be done to make a difference and transform the world. And in so doing, we do not need to be like everyone else. As I wrote for our nursery students:

Sometimes I like to be like everyone else
- and sometime I don't.
Sometimes I like putting on my blue shirt, because my friend Sam is wearing a blue shirt - and sometimes I don't.
Sometimes I like to drink apple juice -- and sometimes I don't.
Sometimes I like to eat my lunch -- and sometimes I don't.
Sometimes I make a lot of noise -- and sometimes I don't.
Sometimes I like to wear a red shirt and drink orange juice
and eat my lunch and not make noise.
Sometimes I do what everyone else is doing -- and sometimes I don't.
Sometimes I like to be not like everybody else.
Sometimes I like to be different.
Sometimes I like to light two Shabbat candles.
Sometimes I like to light more candles.
On Hanukkah I light candles every night for eight days.
The lights get brighter and brighter and brighter.
Every night is different.
Being different is OK.
Every night is special.
I like Hanukkah.

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