Hanukah's Message

In recent years at this time, I have researched the story of Hanukah, dressed up as Simon Ben Mattathias to give “dramatic historical presentations” at synagogues, and even lectured about Hanukah aboard cruise ships.  This year, I’m doing something quite different … learning Israeli children’s Hanukah songs.

As you would expect of any children’s songs, they’re very lively.  Happy images of warm, sweet latkes and sufganyot (filled donuts).  Brightly dancing candles.  Crazily spinning dreidels.   But in addition, a serious message is imbedded in almost every one.  Here are some excerpts:   

We will tell and sing of the Maccabees' victory over the enemies when we overcame their hands; Jerusalem our capital; it’s the heart of Israel; sing to it its song!

And in the Temple burned a pure lamp, telling its secret to everyone about when the yoke was broken.

Then a miracle happened to the people who dared to fight for freedom; my people are brave!

We light these candles for the miracles, wonders, salvations, and wars that You made for our ancestors in those days at this season.

Do these songs, then, teach children two different lessons about Hanukah, one about food, candles and games, the other about victory and freedom?  I don’t think so.  Rather, they teach a single but complex Jewish existential message of eternal hope.  

By no means coincidentally, Hanukah occurs during the darkest, coldest, gloomiest time of year.  Some cultures attempt to push back the gloom with bonfires and alcohol.  Judaism does so by combining historical remembrance with candle-lighting, sweets, and games.  The message seems to be that there is reason to hope -- to rededicate -- even when calamity seems to have finally engulfed us. 

After all, had the Hasmonean revolt not succeeded – and when one studies the history, it does seem a miracle that the Greeks didn’t crush us during the decades of the conflict – it’s likely that Judaism would have died there and then.  And although we celebrate the military victory, it was in fact relatively short-lived.  Judaism and the Jewish state obviously didn’t live “happily ever after.”  Within two centuries, the Second Temple had been destroyed.  Not long after, Jerusalem was razed, a new Roman pagan city was built in its place, and the long Diaspora began.   

Why, then, did we continue to celebrate the temporary military victory of Hanukah? Why did the rabbis substitute a story about miraculously-long burning oil in the rededicated Temple for the miracle of the actual, albeit brief victory?  It was to institutionalize hope in the Jewish people for all time.  That hope was eventually fulfilled in many of our lifetimes with the reestablishment of a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital and the candelabra as our national symbol.

But is this latest victory permanent?   I am reminded of a saying by Reverend Dr. Robert H. Schuller, to whose motivational speeches I once listened.  He said: “Success is never certain; failure is never final.” 

I’m certain that he didn’t have Jewish history or Hanukah in mind, but it fits. 

Remember…celebrate…and never lose hope.  This is the essential message of Hanukah, the festival of light.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb