All over the world, rabbis are getting ready to tell their congregations, "Hanukkah is not just for children, you know?" And it's true; there are many sophisticated and deeply meaningful things to be said about Hanukkah that can help us think about it in different ways. But, I also want to say, if you can't make it simple enough for kids, if you can't get the basic message through to them now, there may not be any parents of Jewish children in our congregations to say this to twenty years on. Hanukkah is an opportunity to instill a message that every child can understand, and every future adult can remember from childhood. It should be so simple that anyone can tell the story, and anyone can get it. So, I want to take a crack at making it really clear for anyone who still needs to bring together the scattered threads of their own Hanukkah knowledge:
On Hanukkah we wish one another, Hanukkah same'ah! 'Happy Hanukkah!' Because it's a celebration, a remembrance of something good, a time in our mythic past when our ancestors saw miracles . . . and needed them. We remember how a foreign army invaded the land and denied the Jewish people their basic rights. How that army took over the Temple of the Jews, kept them from worshipping there, stole and destroyed the things that were kept in it, and spoiled it by sacrificing pigs on the altar. The army thought this would make the Jews obey to them. But they were wrong. It only made them remember how important it was to be free, and to be able to worship in your own way.
You see, the Temple was the center of Jewish life at that time; according to my Rebbe, it was like a transmitter broadcasting a holy signal to the Jewish people. And when that signal was disrupted -- filled with static -- it made the people crazy and they had no choice but to fight back, though they had only a very small army of volunteers, and the invaders had thousands upon thousands of trained soldiers. Their leader was a kohen, or 'priest,' Judah Maccabee, whose name meant, 'the hammer.' Under his leadership, they fought numerous battles with the invaders and eventually drove them out of the land. And this was the first miracle of Hanukkah -- somehow, a small army of Jewish volunteers defeated a much bigger army and took back the city of Jerusalem and the holy Temple.
After they had gained their freedom, they wanted to restore the Temple and its services as soon as possible, to restore the Temple 'signal' that would help them 're-calibrate' after the trauma of the war. Of most importance to them was to re-light the Temple menorah, the seven-branched lamp-stand, which the people felt was a sign that God's light and God's presence filled the Temple. But all the containers of oil were broken but one, and that one only had enough oil to last a single day. Worse, it would take eight days to make new oil. So they had to ask themselves this question: Is it better to light the menorah right away, returning God's light to the Temple immediately, even if it is only for one day? Or, should they wait the eight days it would take to make new oil so that the menorah would not go out again?
In the end, they decided it was better to return God's light to the Temple immediately, to make things right as soon as possible. And this decision led to the second miracle of Hanukkah -- for the oil that should have only lasted a day actually lasted the entire eight days it took to make new oil! Thus, today, the menorah we light in our homes has eight branches to remind us of the eight-day miracle which our ancestors witnessed.* Like the Temple menorah, it is a sign of God's continuing presence in our lives, and in our homes. And in the absence of the Temple today, it is also our very own 'transmitter,' sending-out a 'signal' that helps us, as a people, and as families and individuals, to 're-calibrate' our lives as Jews. Thus, after lighting the menorah, we are taught to take a few minutes to gaze at its light in silence and wonder, allowing its beauty to transform us a little more each night.
Likewise, all the other basic customs of Hanukkah are related to the miracles our ancestors witnessed as well. We eat foods cooked in oil to remind us again of the miracle of the oil. Some people say the Hanukkah gelts, or coins, we give our children are a reminder of the new coins Judah Maccabee had minted after they had liberated the land. And the dreidel we spin today has four Hebrew letters upon it -- Nun Gimmel Heh Shin or Peh - which stand for Neis Gadol Hayyah Sham/Poh, "a great miracle happened there" or "here," meaning, in Israel. But perhaps it should only say, "here," for we are taught that miracles are also possible in our own day. And Hanukkah is a good time for us to talk about the big and small 'miracles' we have witnessed, or which we have heard about.
So that is Hanukkah in a nutshell, the miraculous Hanukkah-seed we need to plant and water in order to grow a deeper and more meaningful experience of Hanukkah for both children and adults. The story and these basic explanations must become so ingrained in our consciousness that we are able to build deeper meaning on them each year. And with them, we also need to have a fun and joy-filled Hanukkah experience to associate our new memories of joy and celebration with the joy and celebration of our ancestors who experienced things so surprising, and so important to them, that they could only call them miracles, just as we do today when something extraordinary happens to us. So, as much as I love the deeper teachings about Hanukkah, I want to make this plug for the basics -- a Hanukkah story and explanation that the child in all of us can understand, and a Hanukkah party that helps us all remember it with joy. Hanukkah same'ah!
* The ninth branch on the modern menorah is for the shammes, or 'servant' candle we use to light the others.