The Bearable Lightness of Jewish Being: A Hanukah Message from Rabbi Golomb

Hanukah begins Wednesday evening, November 27 with the first candle. You should place the Menorah in a location where it can be seen from outside, such as on the ledge or a table by a front window.

Ever wonder why we (Americans) drive on the right side of the road, and the British on the left? There are a number of explanations floating around, mostly having to do with swords and ox carts. Whatever the true historical circumstance, however, we can be confident that it arose out of widespread custom, and then became both practice and law. And thus, we are reminded that some legal norms are not a matter of legislation and/or monarchical fiat, but rather represent popular tradition.

The Jewish observance of Hanukah is a case in point. Over the course of the year, we celebrate a number of sacred occasions: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot/Simhat Torah, Purim, Passover, Shavuot. All of these holidays have their origin in Scripture. To be more precise, all but Purim are mandated (or in the case of Simhat Torah, inferred) in the Torah. Purim comes from the biblical book of Esther. Hanukah, on the other hand, is not to be found in Scripture. The events that generate its observance are rather found in two books (Maccabees I & II) that not only are not biblical but were suppressed, and were only preserved as “hidden books,” or Apocrypha.

The celebration of Hanukah did not present itself as a religious-theological event in the same vein as the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, or the need to account for one’s failings and ask for forgiveness during the 10 Days of Awe. It rather had to break through the strictures and conventions of official custom and practice, and literally present itself to a resistant religious establishment. Little wonder, then, that the Talmud (compiled by the sixth century C.E.) had to ask the question: “Just what is Hanukah?” The Talmudic Sages very well knew that Hanukah was being celebrated by Jews annually in the early winter and with the lighting of lights, but actually did not know why!

Hanukah therefore arose as a popular celebration whose origin and development is buried in unrecorded history. We can nevertheless determine something about its underlying themes and purposes.
First, there is light. The observance of Hanukah asks principally one thing from us: that we light lights on each eve of the holiday. A story is told about a single container of sanctified oil lasting for eight days, but the incident is not recorded in either books of the Maccabees, although both give extensive detail about the restoration and rededication (hanukah) of the Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory. No, Hanukah is a festival of lights precisely because it is the darkest time of the year. Rather than giving in to the darkness, we choose to illuminate the night!

And then there is the Maccabee story itself. While the documentary history of the Jewish revolt against Antiochus and his Hellenistic (Greek) empire might have been suppressed, the basic tale was known. The inhabitants of Judea – Jerusalem and its environs – were put under systematic pressure to live according to the practices and customs of the Greeks. Under the leadership of a priest from Modin, Matethais, and his sons, the people resisted. When an Anitochan army approached, they fought back, achieved an unlikely and stunning victory, restored the partially destroyed Temple, and reasserted their dedication to the One God of Israel.

Sure, the victory is remembered, but what is truly important in the persistence of this celebration is that they fought at all. Individual lives were not at stake. Antiochus, unlike Haman in the Purim story, had no interest in killing anyone. What he wanted was not Jewish lives, but rather the Jewish soul. The underpinning message of Hanukah is: how much do you value being a Jew? What risks are you willing to take in order to preserve your Jewish identity; your own and your children’s children?

Hanukah does not seem to ask very much from us: just a thirty-second ceremony to perform each of eight nights. Actually, however, it asks a great deal. In world in which virtually everyone around us – neighbors, friends, schoolmates and business associates – are engaging in certain ways in order to prepare and celebrate this particular time of year, Jews choose to do something quite different. For eight straight nights, we announce that we are distinct, with our own history and sense of identity. In today’s pluralistic culture, our actions entail very little risk, but they are no less an act of distinction, of even defiance against the pressures and demands of a conforming society.

It is a small act, really: taking a candle and with it, light another candle. It dispels the darkness, however, and reveals a Jewish soul.

Rabbi Paul Golomb

Vassar Temple will celebrate the Tenth Night of Hanukah with its annual Candlelight Shabbat Service on Friday evening, December 6. Dinner at 6:00, and the service at 7:30. You are welcome to bring a Menorah and nine candles for lighting during the service. Follow this link to our Facebook event.

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2 Comments

  1. A powerfully important conclusion is reached in this enlightening article. Thank you Rabbi!

    Reply
  2. Good review. What is the official stand on whether, once the menorah is placed in the window or other spot conspicuous to the outside world, is it lit from left to right or right to left and from whose perspective is the lighting based: you on the inside or those on the outside?

    Reply

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