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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Hanukkah: Remembering the Past, Celebrating Freedom

Some of my earliest memories of practicing my religion involve lighting the Hanukkah menorah. I can remember my parents lifting me up so I could use the shamash or “servant” candle to light the others on each of the eight nights. Those nights in Brooklyn, New York, were filled with presents (including a waffle maker one year, which was probably not appropriate for a seven-year-old), chocolate coins, and potato pancakes. As an adult, I’ve continued to observe the holiday — but now I understand what it means.

Most gentiles, if they know anything about Hanukkah at all, think of it as the Jewish holiday that sometimes coincides (as it does this year) with Christmas. But Hanukkah, while not as important as, say, the High Holy Days or Passover on the Jewish calendar, literally means “dedication.” It represents the triumph and perseverance of faith over adversity.

By being free to light those candles and say those prayers, I can offer a little hope — and throw a little bit of light against the darkness.

At some point around 175-164 B.C., a Syrian Greek king named Antiochus took over the Jewish kingdoms of Judea and Samaria — what is now essentially the nation of Israel. The previous rulers, namely Greeks put in place during the conquest of Alexander the Great, were perfectly happy to let Jews live their lives in peace, worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem and observing Jewish customs.

Some infighting during Antiochus’ reign caused a drastic change in the way the king treated the people of Israel. During the next decade or so, his followers desecrated the Temple (the holiest place in Judaism), placing an altar of Zeus in its place and sacrificing pigs on its grounds. They looted the Temple, forced Jews to worship Greek gods, and banned circumcision and Hebrew language instruction. Evidence of this remains in the dreidel game, which was supposedly a subversive way to teach children Hebrew under Syrian occupation.

Understandably, the Jews rebelled. Judah Maccabee led a guerrilla force against the might of the Syrian empire — and won. Just as David triumphed with three small stones against the giant Goliath, Judah and his Maccabees fought their oppressors with rocks and stones and anything they could muster, hiding in the mountains and ambushing the enormous Syrian Greek army when they could. The army was well-provisioned and most of the Maccabees lacked typical weapons. But after years of fighting, Judah and his men drove the enemy out of Jerusalem, and cleansed and rededicated the Temple, restoring Jewish observance in the land.

Related: Hanukkah’s Inspirational Light

There’s an old joke that says Jewish holidays can basically be described as “They tried to kill us, they failed — let’s eat.” This is certainly the case for Purim and Passover. Like Passover, we remember a group of subjugated people who triumphed over evil with the help of God. Judah Maccabee understood this connection, taking his name from an acronym of “Mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai” (Who is like you, Adonai?), the first verse of a song that Miriam sang on the shores of the Red Sea after it closed behind the Israelites fleeing Egypt.

When the Jews were able to rededicate the Temple, they found only one small oil jug with which to relight the Temple menorah (different from the Hanukkah menorah, which is actually called a chanukiah). Though this oil was only supposed to last one night, it lasted eight — long enough to find more kosher oil. Upon the Temple’s rededication, an eight-day celebration occurred — and this celebration has continued each year, on the 25th of Kislev, as the holiday now known as Hanukkah.

There have been many times in the past 2,050-odd years since the first Hanukkah when Jews were not able to observe their faith — in hiding during the Holocaust, for instance.

There have been places and times where Jews have been oppressed, discriminated against, insulted, and attacked. This year, lighting 44 total candles over the eight nights, I will say the prayers and honor those who suffered — under the Syrian Greeks, under the Nazis, and even in parts of the modern world.

By being free to light those candles, and say those prayers, I can offer a little bit of hope — and throw a little bit of light against the darkness.

The post Hanukkah: Remembering the Past, Celebrating Freedom appeared first on LifeZette.

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