As a child growing up in America, it always seemed that Chanukah got the shorter end of the stick when compared to the bright light of Christmas. Lighting those tiny flames couldn’t hold a candle to the houses draped in Christmas lights and adorned with glowing Santa’s and reindeers on the front lawn. Let’s not even talk about a decorated tree! As I got older and understood what those little Chanukah lights were all about and the commercialization of Christmas, I was proud to be celebrating Chanukah.
I know those who try to defend and define Christmas and for that matter Chanukah, as the holidays of giving. After all, who can argue with that? Giving definitely increases in December (though it is likely a function of end of year tax planning) with all the holiday cheer. I think though that this idea is a mistake and in a way even counterproductive. In Judaism (and I believe Christianity) there is no season of giving. Giving is an all year round event. It applies every single day, week, month and year of our lives. A spiritual person, a Godly person must be a giver. You cannot have a relationship with God while ignoring the needs of those living around you. Defining Chanukah (or Christmas) as a time of giving runs the risk of diminishing the rest of the year as a time of giving as well. I think this idea was developed to justify the gift giving element of the holidays.
So what is Chanukah really about? About 2300 years ago the Greeks were ruling the land of Israel. Over the course of the following century they tried to impose their Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish people. Hellenism was the Greek ideology that included the pursuit of knowledge and the arts, architecture, engineering, science and most importantly the perfection of the human form.
The Greeks were an advanced society and very much respected learning and advancement. What was it that ultimately led the Jews to rebel against the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE?
The Greeks believed that man was equal to if not superior than the gods. They saw the world as a man centered affair in which the gods ultimately had to respond to and accommodate man. Judaism says the exact opposite. The world is meant to be a God centered world where the will of man is bent to the will of God. Life is to be lived in service of God and in the pursuit of goodness and the perfection of the world. When I say perfection of the world I mean that we are supposed to bring Godliness in to everything that we do.
Ultimately, the severely outnumbered Jews defeated the world’s greatest super power with the help of a miracle from God. After redeeming Jerusalem from the Greeks, the Jews went to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem that had been defiled by the Greeks. In the process they found only one jug of pure olive oil with which to light the menorah (the seven branched candelabra lit daily in the Temple). The oil they found though was only enough to light for one day. Nevertheless, they lit the menorah and it remained burning for eight days enough time to prepare new oil.
On Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle of the military victory over the Greeks and the of the oil by lighting candles (or olive oil) for eight nights. We begin with one candle and add one each night. It is beautiful to see here in Israel the flames dancing as they are displayed for all to see in windows or even outside.
At its core, Chanukah is the celebration of those who believe that the world should be God centered against those who believe that the world is man centered. This battle is still being waged today as many in society place athletes and entertainers above heroes of the spirit. The stadium has replaced the house of worship and money its idol. God has been removed from public life and science has the answers to everything. Please do not misunderstand me. I enjoy sports and entertainment. Science is critical and absolutely should be studied and used to help humanity. However when sports, entertainment and science are revered more than God we are no different than the Greeks.
“And God said: Let there be light!” This Biblical imperative is more than just part of the creation story. It is a description of what we are all doing here. Every day we must battle the forces of darkness by adding more and more light to the world. Chanukah reminds us that this is a battle we must face every day.