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Letter to the Editor: On the meaning of Chanukah

This year, American Jews will experience a once-in-a-lifetime event: celebrating the first day of Chanukah and Thanksgiving on the same day. How often does the convergence of these beloved holidays happen? According to one calculation, it will not happen again until the year 79,811. Rabbi Tzvi Freeman has a beautiful insight about one thematic connection between these two holidays. He says Thanksgiving is “a narrative about an arduous journey to escape religious persecution for freedom in a new land, the establishment of a democratic charter and the sense of Divine providence that carried those refugees through their plight. That’s Chanukah as well: a narrative deeply embedded in the collective Jewish psyche of how we fought back against religious oppression in our own land, earned our freedom and thanked God for the miracles.”

I would like to share a few additional thoughts about the meaning of Chanukah.

This festive holiday commemorates the dramatic victory of the Maccabees following a three-year long rebellion against the ruling Assyrian-Greek powers who set out to destroy Judaism by forbidding its observance. The courage of the Maccabees to fight for their religious convictions and their right to practice their Jewish beliefs continues to be an inspiration.

The revolt culminated with the recapture and purification of the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E. and the restoration of its traditional service. (The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication” and refers to the rededication of the Temple after it had been defiled with pagan images and practices.)

In discussing Chanukah, the rabbinic sages emphasized the story about a flask containing a single day’s worth of pure oil that provided light for the newly cleansed Temple not just for that day, but for seven more, until new oil was found to keep the sacred fire burning. That is why we light candles every night for an eight-day celebration.

At a deeper level, one important message about this holiday can speak to all of us in a profound way. Why do we light candles in ascending order every night (one on the first night going up to eight on the last night) instead of descending order?

The ancient rabbinic sages’ answer: to teach us that with every day of our lives, we need to do our share to bring more light into the world – by doing acts of kindness, treating others with dignity and being a source of warmth, healing and hope for people whose world is dark with poverty, disease and loneliness.

So, this Chanukah, may we all give ourselves a real present: the gift of renewed spirit, even as the night grows darkest in the midst of winter. Let us light a candle in our souls, let the flame be a source of strength and inspiration and let us share the light with others.

As all of us in our University community approach the celebration of Thanksgiving and our respective holidays, may we always feel and express gratitude for all the blessings in our lives, and may the light of this season bring joy, warmth, love and peace to all of us, to our families and friends and to people throughout the world.

Rabbi Meir Mitelman

University Jewish Chaplain and Rabbinic Educator, Hofstra Hillel


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