Every Chanukah, I am struck by the beauty of my chanukiyah as the flames glow steadily against the darkness around them. It helps that the chanukiyah uses wicks dipped in olive oil, which nourishes them for hours, instead of candles that burn down in half an hour. I usually admire their light until midnight.
For many of us, the chanukiyah has been a vessel of history, concretizing the Chanukah blessing, "She-asah nisim l'avoteinu, ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z'man ha-zeh," praising God for doing miracles in those days, in this time. Emphasis on "in those days."
Since Sept. 11 and the matzav (situation) in Israel, that emphasis has changed. Ba-z'man ha-zeh. Now we ask for miracles in our time.
"Judaism is a religion of optimism. It's about increasing the light," said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author and spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta. "It's important for parents to teach their children that there is a new and additional light each night. The light gets stronger and serves as a weapon against the darkness."
Chanukah, a season of light and miracles, can be especially comforting as we face the "brokenness" of the world today.
"Just when things seem darkest and most chaotic, we can manufacture light," said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. "And as we begin to increase the light artificially day by day, miraculously, so does nature and the world around us; the moon returns by holiday's end, followed by the gradual increase of daylight following the solstice.
The values of unity and diversity that the events of Sept. 11 awakened in Americans is the essence of Chanukah, too, said Rabbi Sandy Sasso, author and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-el Zedeck in Indianapolis.
"What is Chanukah but a celebration of hope and freedom and respect for difference." Sasso said. "That is also the core of American democracy. The Maccabees fought for the right to be different, to express their own Jewish tradition and not become Hellenists. In America, anyone can practice their own religion without fear."
"In contrast," Sasso continued, "the terrorists are seeking only one way of believing. As we celebrate Chanukah, we can celebrate the spirit of America and the spirit of Judaism."
Chanukah's timeliness is rooted in the classic triumph of goodness over the powers of destruction, said Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. "Chanukah reminds us that fighting evil is a mandate of goodness in the world," Wolpe said. "You can't be indifferent to it and ignore it."
Wolpe said the critical difference between the time of the Maccabees and our time is that the most powerful country in the world is not the ally but the enemy of those doing evil. "Maybe it's a difference we should be celebrating."
Wolpe stressed that the Maccabees were not just battling an external enemy. They represented one side of an internal schism in the Jewish community, defying Hellenism -- assimilation -- while others supported it.
We, too, need to be careful of splitting our community, Weiss warned. "Even though Jews in America are overwhelmed by the challenges here, we should never forget that Israel faces this every day," he said.
The Maccabees' decision to fight for their beliefs has made them role models, whether or not we agree with their religious zeal. "Judaism is not pacifist," noted Hammerman. "There are times when we have to break all the rules in order to save lives."
How can families create new and meaningful rituals as part of their own Chanukah celebrations? Parents can transform gift-giving into a healing act by coupling it with tzedakah, rabbis and educators suggested.
Every Jewish family could dedicate one night as a "giftless night" for themselves, Salkin said, giving the gift instead to agencies who help families in need.