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Chanukah in a Time of War

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

Chanukah is the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar, right? One might surely believe that living in America in 2023. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. In the order of importance, we Jews celebrate or observe: (1) Shabbat, or the Sabbath; (2) Rosh Hashanah; (2) Yom Kippur (they are tied); (4) Sukkot; (5) Pesach or Passover; (6) Shavuot; (7) Tisha B’Av; and then, coming in at the bottom, are Chanukah, Purim, and Tu Bishvat. Chanukah is elevated in our society because it usually falls in December, and Jewish children want to participate in the gift-giving frenzy that their Christian friends enjoy.

So, what exactly is Chanukah? The word means “rededication.” It refers to the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the year 164 BCE, or Before the Common Era. About ten years earlier, Greece took control of Jerusalem and the Temple, and refused to let the Jews worship freely. They waged a war and the tiny Jewish army won, rededicating the Temple for Jewish religious purposes, and commemorating the victory each year after through the celebration of Chanukah.

That’s the story in broad strokes. There are some specifics, well-known and not so well known. First, one of the unknowns. While the small Jewish army, made up of the family of the Maccabees were fighting the Greeks, they were also fighting other Jews. The Maccabees were zealots, religious fundamentalists who believed in the most strict observance of Jewish law and ritual. Many of the other Jews sought to live openly as Jews in a Greek world. Some would call them assimilated Jews; others would say they were acclimated. Whatever, they didn’t like the Maccabees. And the Maccabees didn’t like them.

After the war with the Greeks ended, the Maccabees, also called the Hasmoneans, fought against the assimilate/acclimated Jews until 135 BCE. The Hasmoneans, as they were now called, won that war and assumed power, even the priesthood, though they were not from the line of priests. They ruled Jerusalem until 37 BCE, though they lightened up quite a bit, allowing Jewish customs and Greek customs to blend.

But let’s go back to the original Chanukah in 164 BCE. The Jews rededicated the Temple. Did I mention oil? You know, the Chanukah miracle, how the Jews found a small vial of oil that should have lasted only one day but it lasted eight – so we light candles for eight days and eat foods fried in oil, like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). No, I didn’t mention oil. Because oil doesn’t appear anywhere in the story – the story that tells this history is in the books called first and second Maccabees. These books are not part of the Hebrew Bible. There is a theory that they were considered to be added, but that the ancient Jewish leadership did not like the Maccabean/Hasmonean leadership, and so the books didn’t make it in. But they are in the Catholic Bible.

So where does the oil come from? Well, we Jews have a lot of important books. One, which is called the Talmud, is 73 volumes. Some say the Talmud is the most important book (or set of books) after the Torah. Jews study the Talmud endlessly. And back somewhere between 1500 and 2000 years ago, as recorded in one of the volumes of the Talmud, a discussion ensued in a Jewish learning academy in Babylonia (now Iraq) about wicks used for burning candles.

The teacher, a great rabbi, asked his students what materials could be used to make wicks – such as flax, cotton, paper, etc. – for Shabbat (Sabbath) candles. A student in the class asked if the same rules applied to Chanukah candles. And Chanukah was so minor an observance, another student asked, “What’s Chanukah?” The teacher responded that in 164 BCE, our ancestors fought the Greeks, and after winning the war and rededicating the Temple, they found oil to last only one day, but a miracle ensued and it lasted eight days, so now we celebrate by lighting lights for the eight days of Chanukah.

Wait. Some Rabbi mentioned the oil for the first time hundreds of years after the actual event? Yes, this is the classic example of what we call sacred myth making. One reason I tell this story is because the history is the history of war – both with an enemy outside and within the family. The latter part is rarely mentioned. It doesn’t make particularly good P.R. to talk about in fighting.

The ancient Rabbis, in their brilliance, sought to downplay, even virtually eliminate, the war and in-fighting parts of the story. They reframed Chanukah as a story of miracles and lights – and who doesn’t like a good story with miracles and lights? Nearly all cultures have some kind of story of light or lights that is told in the winter months. Why shouldn’t the Jews?

These lights help us at this time, when the Jewish people in Israel are engaged in a war, and Jews across the globe are experiencing antisemitism like we haven’t seen in generations. Antisemitic incidents are up in France by 4000%, in Great Britain by 1350%, in Germany by 250%, in Canada by 130%, and in the United States by 400%.

And of course, Jews aren’t the only ones under attack. Arabs and Muslims in this country, especially, are experiencing something similar – a rise in threats and violence against Muslim Americans and a “spike in Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian rhetoric.” The horrific attack on the three Palestinian students in Burlington, Vermont, in late November is but one example of the increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian sentiments.

I don’t want to spend my time talking about the war between Israel and Hamas other than to say that it is a war between Israel and Hamas, not between Israel and Muslims, not between Israel and Arabs, and not between Israel and Palestinians. Israel is retaliating against a terrorist organization that brutally, in so many ways that violated international norms of war, committed war crimes and other atrocities while killing, injuring, and taking hostages. What was done – well, I won’t be graphic. It’s too awful to hear. But suffice it to say, the crimes awoke within Jews a thousand years’ worth of generational trauma – going from the Crusades to the expulsions, to the blood libels, to the massacres, to the pogroms, to the Holocaust.

Jews and Arabs, whether Christian or Muslim, have lived together in the Middle East for at least 14 centuries. And they will continue to do so into the distant future. They, together, must find a mutual path for each to live in a safe and sovereign state, with mutual care and shared resources. Israel and Egypt have done so since 1979 and Israel and Jordan have since 1994. It can and must be done for all who respect life and uphold the humanity of the other.

Here we are, on the first day of Chanukah, a time to bring light, as light represents hope, to a world so desperately in need of hope. In closing, I ask that you visualize a candle before you, as I read these words written by liberal rabbis in Israel:

Let us light this candle in honor of the value of mutual guarantee, our deep commitment to each other. As the poet Zelda said, “My peace is tied by a thread to your peace.”

By virtue of the mutual guarantee, soldiers risk their lives for the sake of the people and the country, and thus, thousands from all aspects of society come together to lend a hand and support each other:

Jews, Druze, Muslims, [Christians], men and women, secular and [religious], youth and elderly – each and every one contributes their part, by giving without return, a candle that lights another candle, and misses no one.

The candle of mutual guarantee reminds us of our shared and ongoing historical responsibility to care for each other, and to hold hands both in times of difficulty and in times of deep disagreements.

And in this mutual guarantee, we continue with the hope that war and bloodshed will be abolished from the world, that a great and wonderful peace will follow, and that nation will not lift up a sword against nation; nor will they learn war anymore. This candle brings the hope of living in peace with our neighbors.

Happy Chanukah, a spirited International Human Rights Day, happy winter solstice, Merry Christmas, blessed Kwanzaa, and a happy New Year. 

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784