Hanukkah is almost here, and I simply can't wait.
It isn't about the presents. Gift-giving during Hanukkah is only a token affair in our family, a nod to a custom that began so Jewish children wouldn't feel slighted during the Christmas season. For me, the excitement of Hanukkah is all about the lights.
True, Christmas lights are far grander, offering dazzling displays of holiday cheer, and I love to see them also. They remind us that for both Christians and Jews, this is a season of hope. But I see magic in our Hanukkah flames, tiny and humble, flickering quietly in menorahs inside our homes. They are a standing tribute to a series of miracles that happened more than 2,000 years ago.
Some Jews like to joke that most of our holidays all boil down to the same thing: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat!" And yet, while Jewish history is replete with miracles (how else to explain our persistent survival in the face of so many assaults by those who outgunned and outnumbered us?), Hanukkah still stands apart. It is only one of two Jewish holidays created to commemorate a great miracle. (Purim, in late winter, is the other.)
The heroes of Hanukkah are the Maccabees, a band of seven brothers who fought to preserve Jewish religious identity amid the oppressive, state-mandated idolatry of the Greeks, who ruled Jerusalem at that time. While the Greeks didn't force us from our land, we were still very much in exile under their rule. They tried to banish our spiritual core, outlawing the vital celebrations of the Sabbath, the new moon, and even ritual circumcision.
Then, like now, only a minority of Jews were willing to sacrifice for their heritage. The Maccabees rightly saw this as a battle for the Torah and its revolutionary moral clarity against the darkness of Greek culture, one that was so debased that it even accepted infanticide as "normal." Unfortunately, most Jews chose to acquiesce to Greek demands. Jewish males famously tried to surgically reverse their circumcisions, so that they could try to "pass" for gentiles in the gymnasium. Observance of other commandments plummeted, while intermarriage was high.
The brave Maccabee brothers took up arms against the Greeks. Over many years, they won military victories that could only be described as miraculous, given the absurd odds against them. They suffered huge losses, too, including, tragically, six of the seven brothers themselves.
Hanukkah celebrates these astonishing military victories, and the best-known miracle of all: that tiny drop of pure oil discovered in the Temple, after the Greeks had defiled the holy site. That pure oil insistently burned for eight days, symbolizing both the power of light against darkness as well as God's providence.
In America today, we enjoy religious freedom that our ancestors could never have imagined. We are not forced to choose between secularism and religiosity. But this kind of freedom also carries a threat -- we are free, after all, to assimilate ourselves into extinction. Greek messages are still as powerful today as they were millennia ago: Why not work on being thinner, richer, more beautiful? For people who think the body is all there is, no price will be too high to chase that elixir of youth.
In an open society, Jews need a reason to behave more like Maccabees and less like Greeks. That's why the word Hanukkah means "dedication," but its root word, chinuch, means "education." When we are shown the beauty and value of our moral heritage, we will naturally work to preserve it, even at the cost of our lives.
We light our Hanukkah menorahs in a window of our homes so that our neighbors can see our small, modest candles. They aren't flashy or fancy, but they quietly, even dramatically, light up the room with their power. When I sit and watch those flickering flames, I am strengthened by the memory of my ancestors who fought for our faith -- and were rewarded by miracles.