I have written in the past about the historical Hanukkah, and how the miracle of one jar of oil lasting for eight days is missing from the historical record. Although this is the story that we teach children, I think there is a much more powerful and important lesson in the real story of Hanukkah.
I had an appointment last month to meet with a ten year old non-Jewish boy and his father. The son had been reading about Hanukkah and had some questions. He asked me if it was OK to light a menorah. Rather than giving him an immediate answer, I asked him why he wanted to light the Hanukkiah. I wanted to know what it would mean to him, to light the Hanukkah menorah. At first, he couldn’t answer the question very well. It wasn’t a question that he had considered. I had the impression that he liked the exotic nature of participating in another religious’s ritual, that he thought that lighting a menorah sounded fun. After speaking for a bit, however, I was impressed at the seriousness of the young man. It became apparent that he had done some serious reading about Hanukkah – he just hadn’t connected all of the dots. He was able to describe the ritual of lighting candles very precisely and he knew the history of Hanukkah, but he hadn’t connected the history of the holiday to the ritual of the celebration of the holiday.
I led him through a series of questions – first, we talked about Thanksgiving. I asked him to tell me why we celebrate Thanksgiving, to describe the historical Thanksgiving, and to explain why the Pilgrims ended up on the shores of North America in the first place. He quickly came to the conclusion that one of the stories behind Thanksgiving is a story of a group of people seeking religious freedom.
I then asked him to relate this to the story of Hanukkah. He told me how the Maccabees fought against the Syrian army to purify the Temple. I suggested that the Syrian-Greek culture was being imposed on the Jews against their will, so Hanukkah was also a celebration of religious freedom.
I told him a story that happened in 1993 in Billings, Montana. Among other acts of hate, Swastikas were painted on the door of the synagogue and a Jewish home was defaced. The non-Jewish community responded by painting over the defaced property. In late November, beer bottles and cinder blocks were through through the windows of Jewish homes displaying hanukkah menorahs. Churches began distributing pictures of menorahs, and within days thousands upon thousands of Christian homes were displaying menorahs in solidarity with the Jewish community.
Generally, I do not support the idea of non-Jews appropriating our rituals and symbols. However, my message to this young man was that as long as he understood that the light of the menorah is intended to be a call for religious freedom, that I would understand why he felt compelled to light the candles. I offer you the same message – don’t light the Hanukkah menorah because God produced an eight day supply of oil where only one day’s worth was expected. That’s a cool magic trick, but God can do better. Light the Hanukkiah because the faith of a small group of Jews in God and Torah was so strong that against all odds, they achieved religious freedom. That’s a miracle worth celebrating.