Growing up, I always loved being Jewish. But, for some reason, I could never get into Chanukah. Perhaps it’s because my friends who celebrated Christmas recognized it as the ONLY holiday that I celebrated, because it was the only one they knew about.
Chanukah gets a lot of press because of its proximity to Christmas (although next year, because of the Jewish calendar, it’s much closer to Thanksgiving). Even though it’s a holiday, it’s not a religious holiday prescribed in our sacred texts. So, sometimes, it’s considered a minor Jewish holiday. Christmas, on the other hand, is one of the most important Christian holidays and deserved to be treated that way – with sanctity, respect, and honor.
This is not to say that Chanukah is NOT important – it’s just not as important as other holidays like Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, or Pesach. But it does tell an important story – the story of strength and might against all odds, of courage and resilience, of perseverance and of continued Jewish identity.
The story is about a small faction of Jews named the Maccabees living in Judea around 166 BCE who were resistant to the pressure around them to Hellenize and become more like the people and rulers that were occupying the land at that time. This group resisted and rose up, using guerrilla warfare tactics, and were successful over many years. After Antiochus destroyed the Temple, the Maccabees went in and REDEDICATED the synagogue, claiming it back after months and years of fighting.
The real miracle is not some notion that oil lasted longer than was thought; the real miracle is that this rebel group lasted longer than others thought they would and they were eventually successful at achieving their fight for religious and political freedom.
The word Chanukah means “dedication.” In the case of the story of Chanukah – it has two meanings: The rededication of the Temple after its destruction from outside forces, and the dedication that these Maccabees had to their cause to see the continuance of Jewish life. It’s a remarkable story of hope and bravery and reminds us all that we can achieve great things if we commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the cause.
As an adult, I’ve really come to understand the true meaning of Channukah and embrace it. It’s not just about gift-giving, lighting lights, spinning the dreidle or eating latkes. It’s a moment for us to remember the bravery of those who came before us, long ago, to be thankful for their courage and the path they carved for us, and to remind ourselves of the importance of commitment and self-identity as we celebrate all of the joys that life has to offer.
May you have a meaningful holiday season of warmth, reflection, and renewed commitment to your faith and your life.
Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Reform Temple of Forest Hills