Starting on the 25th of the month of Kislev, Jews celebrate the 165 B.C.E. victory of the Maccabees, a brave troop of priest-warriors who vanquished the mighty Syrian Greeks. Every winter, Jews commemorate this military miracle by lighting Hanukkah candles, increasing the glow of spirituality in the world and saluting those who keep alive the dream of freedom.
The Torah portions we read at this time of the year also highlight dreamers. We learn about the visions of our patriarch Yaakov and his son Yosef, followed by Pharaoh’s butler and baker, then Pharaoh himself. The resounding theme of the power of dreams offers us hope amid darkness, echoing prophet Zechariah’s motto: “Not by might but by spirit” shall we all live in peace. Every flame on every hanukkiah (the Hanukkah menorah) is a small victory, a reminder of the triumph of good over evil. Hanukkah recalls those dreamers, from biblical times to the present, committed to the transformation of the world to one of liberty and justice for all. Moreover, we are reassured of the efficacy of the secret weapon in our arsenal: the power of dreams.
Jewish survival requires toughness and fortitude, an indefatigable resolve to advocate for liberty and self-expression. As a once-enslaved people, we instinctively rally against injustice inflicted on any group. Hanukkah further refines the Passover message of freedom, emphasizing that even in bondage, one can be spiritual. Our endurance is predicated on learning God’s word, remaining separate and worshipping as we choose.
The Greeks prohibited three things they perceived as crucial to maintaining the Jewish covenantal claim: observing the Sabbath, commemorating Rosh Chodesh, and circumcision. These fundamental mitzvot are not optional for sustained joy of Judaism, and the Maccabees were compelled to take up arms.
The loss of enthusiasm for these Jewish traditions can smother our spiritual sparks just as easily as the threat of physical annihilation. Hanukkah reminds us to keep alive the dream in spite of tribulations we face. During the week of Hanukkah, we can reflect on all injustices suffered by all people, feeling a sense of unity with those afflicted throughout history and today.
The standard box of Hanukkah candles contains 44 candles. We light “double chai” (36) over the eight nights to fulfill the mitzvah. Perhaps this represents chai (“life”) for the Jews and another chai for our dream of peace for all nations. The eight leftover candles in the box serve as the shamash (“servant/aide”) for each night.
We light the shamash first, say the bracha, then use the shamash to light the other candles. But more than just igniting the others, the shamash serves an important function. Halachah dictates we can’t use Hanukkah lights for practical purposes, such as reading or working. These lights are purely spiritual and are solely for our metaphysical enjoyment. So don’t light and run. Avoid the urge to rush into presents, dreidel spinning and a latke feast. Sit and enjoy the candles. Take a deep breath, relax, converse with family and friends, or just sit alone and ponder the simple, everyday gifts we get from our Creator.
Most importantly, use those holy moments to rekindle your own dreams.
Hanukkah is the time to remember that the battle of the Maccabees must be fought in every generation. Like Yaakov and Yosef, whose stories illuminate this season, we must reclaim our connection with the dreams of our people — but not at the expense of our connection with humanity. We will continue to fight for a distinct Jewish identity while making this world a better place for all people and all nations. Let us realize Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a “day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing together with the words of the old folk song, ‘Free at last, free at last. Great God Almighty, we are free at last.’ ”
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. His Jewish CDs include “The Songs We Sing,” “The Promise,” “Hineni” and “A Day in the Life.” He scores for film and TV in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio.