Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the Jews over the Assyrian Greeks in 165 BCE and is celebrated by lighting a menorah for eight nights, is a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. It has no connections to the agricultural cycle (as do the more important observances of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), and is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. Yet despite this, Hanukkah is perhaps one of the most widely known Jewish holidays (its proximity to Christmas doesn’t hurt), and certainly a favorite of children everywhere.
When we’re young, Hanukkah is more of a holiday associated with receiving, not giving – the presents and candles, the gelt (coin money), the deliciously oily food, and the “eight crazy nights,” Adam Sandler famously sang about. But if we look deeper into the origins of the holiday, we can find connections to service that we can apply to our lives.
According to Lesli Koppelman Ross, author of Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook, the famed military revolt of the Maccabees against the Assyrian Greeks was the result of religious persecution the Jews suffered. She writes:
Decreeing that studying Torah, observing the Sabbath, and circumcising Jewish boys were punishable by death, he [Antiochus Epiphanes IV] sent Syrian overseers and soldiers to villages throughout Judea to enforce the edicts and force Jews to engage in idol worship.
Because of its roots as a struggle for religious freedom, Hanukkah offers a great opportunity for us to be aware and thankful for the rights we enjoy. Here in the United States, Jews have been fortunate that our religious freedom has been enshrined in the First Amendment, which guarantees the separation between church and state.
It’s not just the military victory and freedoms won that should teach and inspire us today. To commemorate the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one, we light the menorah every night of the holiday, starting with just one candle and increasing incrementally throughout. This an important lesson for anyone involved in service work who wants to avoid burnout. Don’t jump into the deep end even if you’re filled with zeal. Don’t try to do everything at once but begin slowly and increase your efforts and ambitions as you go along.
And there’s the light itself. The symbolism is easy to locate in the kindling of flames — bringing light into the dark, hope where there had been none. This is our task as individuals engaged in repairing the world. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington can enable you to do this literally (and figuratively) by visiting group homes and lighting holiday candles with seniors. For more information, you can email [email protected]
Furthermore, during a holiday when purchasing is the norm, we should remember to give to those in need. An innovative new website called What I Did Not Buy, allows you to see how far the money you might spend on toys, electronics and other fineries might go if they were put to charitable use. It’s a project of BRAC, which does antipoverty work in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sierra Leon, Tanzania and several other countries.
Finally, there’s activism. When confronted with oppression, the Maccabees decided to act and resist. Now, the Maccabees sought a military solution to their problem with the Greeks — there weren’t any fellowships, think tanks and panels back in their day — but thankfully we have other tools at our disposal. This Sunday, December 5th, join modern day Jewish activists doing important work in the fields of food access, environmentalism and racial and economic inequality at Inside the Activists’ Studio at the 92Y Tribeca in New York.