November 28, 2002
Menorah Lights Our Way
For three years, I lived in an apartment in Jerusalem next to a bus stop. The rhythm of my life quickly adapted to the bus schedule. Just by looking out my bedroom window, I knew exactly when to leave the house in order to catch the bus.
When I returned to California, I assumed my life's association with buses would end. But this was not to be. I live in a neighborhood where buses abound. But the associations couldn't be more different.
In Israel, a bus represented a possible tomb. Each passenger a could-be suicide bomber. Taking the bus becomes a statement of defiance in the face of unrelenting terrorism and the constant threat of death.
I had friends who stopped taking the bus in favor of taxis. Or if they saw someone who looked suspicious board the bus, they jumped off and waited for the next to come along. Here, boarding a bus means getting to where you need to go.
While the buses are different, so is the experience of Chanukah. Growing up, my family always lit a single menorah in an interior room of the house. In Israel, I learned the menorah is supposed to be placed near a window looking out onto the street to publicize the holiday, and each member of the household should light his own.
I quickly grew to love this enhanced way of honoring events that happened some 2,000 years ago.
We all know the story of Chanukah. The Syrian-Greeks occupied the land of Israel and commandeered our Holy Temple. They outlawed many of our religious practices and defiled the Temple. Then a group of Jews known as the Maccabees rebelled, drove the Syrian-Greeks out and reclaimed the Temple. Topping off the victory, a flask of oil meant to last just one day, miraculously burned for eight.
But the battle of Syrian-Greek versus Jew ran much deeper than a mere physical occupation of our land. It was the battle of two great forces -- spirituality versus physicality.
Syrian-Greek culture placed beauty and intellect above spirituality and religion. It honored and revered all that the physical world represented. In their aspiration for aesthetic idealism, however, they denied the transcendence of the human spirit and rejected any notion of metaphysical reality. Thus it should not surprise us that they fought so desperately to uproot Torah, the spiritual compass for morality and spirituality.
Judaism teaches that the potential for human greatness is achieved not through the ascendancy of the physical, but by subjugation of the physical to the spiritual. We strive to break through the bounds of physical limitation and aspire for a higher reality, one that lies beyond materialism, beyond superficiality.
The Syrian-Greeks enjoyed a high measure of success in "converting" Jews who succumbed to the attractions of secular life. These Jews, known as Hellenists, thrived in the cultural ambivalence offered by the Syrian-Greeks to such an extent, that Jewish tradition was on the verge of disintegration.
The Jewish people had survived attempts by the Babylonians and the Persians to destroy them physically and spiritually, but never before had a movement from within sought to redefine the beliefs and practices that had shaped the Jewish national character since the time of Abraham.
Ultimately, the Macabbees routed the enemy, the Temple was rededicated, the oil miraculously burned for eight days and the Hellenists were discredited. And just who were these victorious Macabbees? None other than the Cohanim, or the priests, of the nation.
On Chanukah, therefore, we celebrate the victory of traditional Jewish culture over both the external forces that strove to overturn it, and the forces within that wished to dilute it.
Today we find ourselves in much the same shoes, but in an even more complicated mixture. Ideological sects lay claim to spiritual authenticity, separatist movements labor to set themselves apart and multiculturists demand a coming together. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing and hate crimes prod us to wonder if we may not be better off abandoning our culture and religion.
Had the ancient Syrian-Greeks not sensed their beliefs were threatened by Jewish monotheism, they would not have fought so desperately to crush Judaism. Had the Hellenist Jews felt more secure in the traditions of their ancestors, they would never have contemplated compromising their heritage by pursuing secular culture with such fervor.
The one who knows what he believes and why is both immune to the attraction of foreign culture and tolerant of sincere alien belief. He will be neither bullied nor seduced by the philosophies of others, because he is secure in his own. He will be able to live in harmony with others and work together for the common welfare without sacrificing his ideals or compromising his values.
For more than 2,000 years, the lights of Chanukah have burned as a symbol of spiritual wisdom. And it is the menorah that represents the way the soul finds its expression in this world. No matter how much darkness surrounds us, we still light the menorah, because we know who we are and who we can be.
This year, proudly place your menorah in a spot where the outside world can gaze in and see your spiritual light illuminate the darkness. Because sometimes a bus ride isn't just a bus ride.
Marisa N. Pickar is a freelance journalist living in Laguna Woods.