Hanukkah celebrates survival of the Jewish people



 Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates the struggle of the Jewish people against the Syrians in Israel in 175 BCE (before the Common Era). Jews around the world celebrate in December by lighting candles for eight nights and eating the traditional food of doughnuts and latkes (potato pancakes).

 Hanukkah means “dedication,” referring to the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after defeating the Syrian army and reclaiming the city and the Temple.  In the era following the conquest of major centres of civilizations in Europe, Asia and Africa by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, most of those countries had embraced Hellenism.

 The Jews, however, clung tenaciously to their Torah and were the exception to the universal global trend. For 150 years they were allowed to do so as long as they paid their dues to the emperor. In 175 BCE, Emperor Antiochus imposed the dominant Hellenism and paganism of its time upon the Jews by placing pagan altars in the land of Israel and in the Temple. He restricted them from practising their religion, forbade circumcision, keeping the Shabbat (Sabbath) and studying the Torah. His army burned Torah scrolls. The punishment for disobeying the decrees was death.

 The survival of Judaism was at stake. A small group of Jews led by Matityahu, of a priestly family, and his five sons started a revolt that soon spread to other communities. For three years the small group called Maccabees fought against the mighty army. Resistance to religious persecution is central to the theme of Hanukkah.

 If not for the miracle of the Jewish military defeat over the Syrian-Greek tyrants there would not be a Jewish people. Through historic perspective we understand that thanks to the tenacity of the Jews to cling to their faith we celebrate Hanukkah and our survival as Jews.
 The festival of Hanukkah bids us to rededicate our lives to Jewish values and ideals that were preserved by the Maccabean victory. The theme of dying in sanctification of God’s name (kiddush Hashem), became central to Jewish understanding of the Hanukkah story and profoundly influenced later Jewish life and thought. Jews were persistent in their conviction to sacrifice their lives for the right to practise their faith freely. Some of them realized that the survival of their faith, at times, requires the supreme sacrifice of individual life.

 The Jewish struggle for religious liberty and a willingness to die on behalf of their faith became powerful paradigms for Jews for centuries to come.  This idea strikes a very personal chord. My grandfather was murdered in Hungary during the Holocaust because he did not agree to work at the labour camp on Shabbat. My grandfather’s religious conviction, leading to his death, was a model to his many descendants (more than 200) to keep Shabbat in great anticipation and joy, as he did.
 When I sit around the Shabbat table with my wife, children and grandchildren and sing songs that my grandfather sang, my eyes fill with tears of happiness and sadness. Sadness by the way he was taken from me when I was just eight months old and happiness that his grandchildren and great grandchildren keep his legacy and sing his songs around the Shabbat table. Fathers teach them to their children, so the legacy of his life and death will last for many more generations.

 So, in the face of so much sacrifice and suffering why rejoice on Hanukkah? We celebrate the sacrifices made by so many Jews over the millennia, and we are firm that those sacrifices were not in vain. By acknowledging their dedication to their religion and heritage we celebrate the purpose of life itself and the endurance of the Jews as a people.

 Hanukkah emphasizes the importance of trust in God. It was the trust in a loving and caring God that prompted the Jews to rise up against their oppressors. They acted against all odds, trusting in God’s help and recognizing that God performs miracles through the human agent and by way of natural order. That’s why man must initiate actions and try to help himself.

 While Jews must participate in outside culture and society, their mission is to keep their faith and to make this world a better place in which to live.

 The holiday of Hanukkah teaches us that to conquer the darkness and evil in the world, our duty is to bring the light, to uphold the principles of religious freedom, liberty and justice for all people.

Rabbi Avraham Fisher is the past Rabbi of Beth Isaiah Synagogue. This column was published on the Faith page of the Guelph Mercury in 2015. It also appears in his book Lights of Judaism, which is available at the main branch of the Guelph Public Library.