More than 2,000 years ago, the Jewish people led a revolt against oppressors who forbade them to pray, study the Torah, or observe their religious customs. Led by Judah Maccabee and fueled by their faith, their small army triumphed over tyranny. Consequently, on Thursday evening, December 7th, Jewish people around the world will come together to light the first candle of Hanukkah, otherwise known as The Festival of Lights.
At its heart, this uplifting holiday is about the achievement of justice in the face of overwhelming odds. It is an opportunity to reflect on the triumph of liberty over despotism, and the fact that miracles can happen even in the darkest moments. Though they were outnumbered in people and in means, the Maccabees’ dedication to their cause was unwavering, and thus these brave warriors emerged victorious over an oppressive Greek regime.
Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory. Because there is a tension in the Jewish tradition between the duty to defend the right to religious freedom and the reluctance to bear arms, the ancient Maccabees fought only when doing so was vital for survival. They went forth with great faith in our Creator, believing, in the words of our biblical prophet, Isaiah, that “not by might and not by power but by the spirit of the Holy One” would they achieve victory. While fully knowing that it was they who would be responsible to fight for what mattered to them, the Maccabees also hoped for miracles and prayed for wisdom.
Their small beam of hope became a huge flame of triumph and everlasting happiness for the Jewish people. This shining light, which burned continuously both in their hearts and in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem back then, illuminates Jewish homes and synagogues throughout the world today. The glow of the menorah reminds us of a just and loving Creator’s blessing, and of the countless sacrifices made over the centuries for faith and freedom. As American Jews, we owe a special debt of gratitude to the United States, for its offering us the greatest freedom of religious expression in our history.
During the eight days of Hanukkah, let us all be inspired by the knowledge that light can overcome darkness. During this season of light, let’s all renew our commitment to hope and to pray, to work and to sacrifice, and to bring about that blessed time when religious freedom will be a right, not just a dream, for all of humankind. May our readiness to defend ourselves never undermine our commitment to “seek peace and pursue it” and may this holiday season be a time of hope, happiness, peace and unity for all mankind. Amen!
As night falls over each of the next eight days, Jews in the United States, Israel, and around the world will gather to light their Hanukkah menorahs, display them proudly in the window, and recall the miracles of both ancient times and the present day.
For more than two millennia, the story of Hanukkah has reminded the world of the Jewish people’s perseverance and the persistence of faith, even against daunting odds. For more than two centuries, the meaning of this holiday has inspired an American tradition of religious freedom — one codified in the Bill of Rights and chronicled in the enduring promise President George Washington made in his letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island: that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
May the flicker of each flame in every Menorah remind us all of the profound miracles in our own lives. And may the light of hope we shed continue to drive out darkness and brighten the futures we build for our families, our neighbors, our communities, and our world.