You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that Hanukkah is not a “Jewish Christmas”, nor is it a major Jewish holiday. In fact, Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), nor does it impart any major restrictions on people’s day-to-day behaviors – unlike the major Jewish holidays of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: Nearly 2,200 years ago, the Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV tried to force Greek culture upon the peoples in his territory. Antiochus marched into Jerusalem, vandalized the Temple, erected an idol on the altar, and desecrated its holiness with the blood of pigs. Jews in Judea – what is now Israel – were forbidden (on pain of death) their most important religious practices – including the study of our Torah, and our ability to worship on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath).
Although vastly outnumbered, religious Jews in the region took up arms to protect their community and religion. Led by Mattathias – and later his son Judah the Maccabee – the rebel armies became known as the Maccabees. The Hebrew word “maccabee” actually means “hammer”.
After three years of fighting, in the Jewish year of 3597, or about 165 years before the birth of Jesus and 735 years before the birth of Mohammed, the Maccabees victoriously reclaimed the Temple on Jerusalem's Mount Moriah. Next, they prepared the Temple for rededication — in Hebrew, Hanukkah means “dedication”. In the Temple they found only enough purified oil to kindle the Temple light for a single day – but miraculously, the light continued to burn for eight days. Thus, we refer to Hanukkah as the “festival of lights”.
So . . . Hanukkah may not be one of our major holidays, but it conveys an important message: of asserting the right to maintain one’s religious traditions, and resisting compulsory adoption of the traditions of others.
Now, wouldn’t it be a better world if we ascribed to the philosophy of “live and let live”? But perhaps even that libertarian thought may be too passive. Perhaps a more promising approach might be to not just “mind our own respective businesses”, but to make a proactive and concerted effort to try to understand the values that others hold dear, in order to appreciate and honor them within the paradigm of communal diversity within which we live.
It is in the pursuit of knowledge, which leads to understanding, which leads to tolerance, which leads to honoring the interests of others, which leads to embracing the right of others to believe as they wish and to act responsibly towards others with respect and integrity . . . which, eventually – and hopefully sooner rather than later – will lead us all to a world at peace.
My wish is that we all take an opportunity to learn something new this holiday season, whether by calling up an app on a smartphone . . . or by simply taking the time to stop and ask another human being, face-to-face – someone with, perhaps, a different perspective than yours – for their perspective.
And with that, I ask G-d’s blessing for all people to have a happy, healthy, peaceful, abundant, safe and secure holiday season!