Why Celebrate Hanukkah?

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by Rabbi Michael Kashdan, Ahavat Zion Synagogue, Los Angeles

Recently I was texting with a fellow member of a committee at my synagogue to pin down a date for a meeting. She explained that she was so busy and was OBE. Being illiterate regarding most of the shorthand of text messaging, I had to ask her what OBE meant. She informed me that it meant “overwhelmed by events.” 

21st century life can indeed be overwhelming. We live in an age of 24/7 news cycles, 24 hour fitness, and supermarkets that never close. We also enjoy constantly evolving technological conveniences. This new fact of life isn't lost on the entertainment industry. In a recent issue published by Marvel Comics, Iron Man comments that no matter how much he upgrades his armor and weapons, the super villains upgrade theirs as well. Technological innovation can give birth to great conveniences, but it also tends to make our skills obsolete.

What does this have to do with Hanukkah? The word “Hanukkah” means “dedication,” and the holiday celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in ancient times. It also celebrates the dedication of those who fought to restore the Temple. Here’s the story:

In 167 BCE, the Jewish people felt OBE—overwhelmed by events. The Land of Israel was under the control of a hostile foreign leader of the Seleucid Greek Empire and had been in the midst of a struggle between the Seleucids and the rival Ptolemaic Egyptian Kingdom. While the State of Israel does not presently face the prospect of pigs being sacrificed to Zeus on the Temple Mount, as it did back then, there is a hostile regime committed to the destruction of Israel in a northerly direction, along with those closer to Israel who are willing to do Iran’s murderous bidding. While we have our own Ptolemies of sorts, in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are opposed to Iran’s expansionist intentions (just as the Ptolemies opposed the Seleucids’ expansionist intentions), having to rely upon alliances with third parties for one’s security is a risky business, to put it mildly. We yearn for a true, reliable source of authentic peace and security.

In the Diaspora, we may not face the same immediate existential threat, but our quest to keep up with the pace of technological innovation may seem like a never-ending marathon. No wonder the phrase “rat race” was coined! For many of us the days of learning a skill early in life and using that to live securely until retirement are gone forever. Is the political world any more of a source of comfort? In a day of hardening of the ideological boundaries, and political parties seeming to occupy the place of polar opposites, we might survey the landscape and feel overwhelmed.

Facing a seemingly hopeless situation, the Maccabees did not succumb to defeatism or "overwhelm," nor did they compromise on their key principles. They followed the path that their ethical convictions dictated, regardless of the enormity of the task. Unwittingly perhaps, they lived in accordance with Paul's dictum in his first letter to the congregation in Corinth that “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). No single member of the Maccabees could accomplish the task, but they were found to be dedicated servants to their holy task – even when it required the sacrifice of their lives. The Mishnah tells us, "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it" (Pirkei Avot 2:21). Being part of a faith community, and thus part of a larger effort, can be a source of energy for us.

In the midst of our turbulent lives, where do we turn? Hanukkah provides a spiritual and communal invitation, to rededicate ourselves to the path that Hashem has set before us. May we all be inspired by the Maccabees' dedication and conviction. 

Monique Brumbach