All year round, we must battle the forces of darkness and increase light in the world. Chanukah is an annual reminder that this battle must be waged every day!
As a child growing up in America, it always seemed that Chanukah got the shorter end of the stick when compared to the bright lights of Christmas. Lighting those tiny flames couldn’t hold a candle to the houses draped in Christmas lights and adorned with glowing Santas and reindeers on the front lawn.
Let’s not even talk about a decorated tree! But as I got older and understood what those little Chanukah lights were all about, I was proud to be celebrating Chanukah.
Chanukah: Not the Only Time for Giving
I know those who try to defend and define Christmas, and for that matter Chanukah, as the holidays of giving. After all, who can argue with that? Giving definitely increases in December (though it is likely a function of end of year tax planning) with all the holiday cheer. I think that this idea is a mistake and in a way even counterproductive.
In Judaism (and I believe Christianity) there is no season of giving. Giving is an all-year-round event. It applies every single day, week, month and year of our lives. A spiritual person, a Godly person, must be a giver. You cannot have a relationship with God while ignoring the needs of those living around you.
Defining Chanukah (or Christmas) as a time for giving runs the risk of diminishing the rest of the year as a time for giving as well. Perhaps this idea was developed to justify the gift-giving element of the holidays.
A Battle for Hearts and Minds
So what is Chanukah really about? Approximately 2,300 years ago the Greeks were ruling the land of Israel. Over the course of the following century they tried to impose their Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish people. Hellenism was the Greek ideology that included the pursuit of knowledge and the arts, architecture, engineering, science and, most important, the perfection of the human form.
The Greeks were an advanced society and very respected. What was it that ultimately led the Jews to rebel against the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE?
The Greeks believed that man was equal to if not superior to the gods. They saw the world as a man-centered affair in which the gods ultimately had to respond to and accommodate man. Judaism says the exact opposite.
The world is meant to be a God-centered world where the will of man is bent to the will of God. Life is to be lived in service of God and in the pursuit of goodness and the perfection of the world. When I say perfection of the world I mean that we are supposed to bring Godliness into everything that we do.
Ultimately, the severely outnumbered Jews defeated the world’s greatest superpower with the help of a miracle from God. After redeeming Jerusalem from the Greeks, the Jews went to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem that had been defiled. In the process they found only one jug of pure olive oil with which to light the menorah (the seven branched candelabra lit daily in the Temple).
The oil they had found was only enough to last for one day. Nevertheless, they lit the menorah and it remained burning for eight days – enough time to prepare new oil.
Double Miracle: Military Might and Eight Nights of Light
We celebrate Chanukah by lighting candles (or olive oil) for eight nights to commemorate the miracles of (1) the military victory over the Greeks and (2) the oil. We begin with one candle and add another each night. It is beautiful to see here in Israel the flames dancing as they are displayed for all to see in windows or even outside.
At its core, Chanukah is the celebration by those who believe that the world should be God-centered of the victory against those who believe that the world is man-centered.
This battle is still being waged today as many in society place athletes and entertainers above heroes of the spirit. The stadium has replaced the house of worship, with money as its idol. God has been removed from public life, and science supposedly has the answers to everything. Please do not misunderstand me. I enjoy sports and entertainment. Science is critical and absolutely should be studied and used to help humanity. However, when sports, entertainment and science are revered more than God, we are no different than the Greeks.
“And God said: Let there be light!” This Biblical imperative is more than just part of the creation story. It is a description of what we are all doing here. Every day we must battle the forces of darkness by adding more and more light to the world. Chanukah reminds us that this is a battle we must face every day.
By Rabbi Moshe Rothchild
If you’re looking for a special Chanukah gift to help others spread the light, our Israel Boutique offers beautiful and meaningful presents that will bring joy to someone special’s life and help support the Jewish people.
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