As we prepare for the start of Chanukah this Sunday night, with menorahs, dreidels, presents and latkes, I wonder if we realize that Chanukah was stolen.
Hopefully, we will enjoy the Festival of Lights — the candlelighting, family time, delicious foods, and, yes, even the gelt and gifts. But what is Chanukah really all about?
Of course, many will say it is about fighting for freedom. Others will talk of the miracles of a few Jews battling and defeating the Greek army, and of the miracle of the oil, in which one day’s worth of oil for the Temple menorah lasted for eight.
Although these reasons are correct, there is something else: the purpose of Chanukah and what it really commemorates. This is what was stolen from the Jews.
Chanukah was not about physical freedom. In fact, the Jews of Israel that adopted the customs and lifestyle of the Greek Assyrians had relative freedom and were not persecuted.
Chanukah was about fighting for religious freedom. The Maccabees were scholars and rabbis. Throughout history, the Jewish people have unfortunately endured many persecutions. In the majority of these persecutions, it made no difference whether they were secular or religious. It was simple: if they were Jews, they were persecuted. But Chanukah was different. The Greek Assyrians wanted the Jews to adopt their lifestyle, their mode of dress and their customs. If the Jews did that, they were left alone.
The problem for the Greeks was the stubborn Torah-observant Jews.
So, the Greeks banned the observance of Shabbat, the performance of brit milah (circumcision), the celebration of Rosh Chodesh and the study of Torah, hoping to break the Jewish people spiritually, not physically.
Some of the Jews succumbed to the temptations of Greek culture, others, however, held fast to Jewish religious life and observance. There were many that were even willing to give up their lives to continue observing the mitzvot. Then, under the leadership of the Maccabees, the observant Jews fought to restore Jewish religious life.
By understanding what really took place at that time, the appreciation of the miracles of Chanukah is deepened. Physical self-preservation is a natural human response. Therefore, for people to put themselves in physical danger to preserve the Torah and mitzvot, is quite extraordinary. And because they transcended human nature to uphold their religion, God responded by transcending nature. He allowed the few to beat the mighty, and the oil to miraculously last eight days.
The Chasidic masters teach that the eight days of Chanukah also remind us of what the Greek Assyrians tried to destroy. We should remember the eight days of Chanukah correspond to the eight days from birth to a bris; that there is a Shabbat during the eight days of Chanukah; and that there is always a Rosh Chodesh during Chanukah.
So now is the time. We need to steal Chanukah back.
This year, as we celebrate Chanukah, let us remember its deeper significance:
As we spin the dreidel, we should remember that it was used to disguise the study of Torah by children during the rule of the Greeks. We should commit ourselves and our children to greater Torah study.
As we eat the latkes fried in oil, we should remember the miracle of the oil that transpired because of the commitment to fight for the light of Torah. We should take a stand for Torah and mitzvot.
As we spend time with our families and light the menorah, are we doing enough to light the flames of Jewish observance and Jewish education within our homes, lifestyles and selves?
If we are brave enough to put our spiritual existence above our physical one, then Chanukah can be stolen back and be truly ours.