November 28, 2002
It's not only that this year Thanksgiving and Chanukah coincide, it's that the calendar makes us focus on the thanksgiving aspect of Chanukah's meaning. Every year, when we reflect on the glow of Chanukah's lights, we are celebrating a different form of Thanksgiving.
Jewish tradition teaches us that one of the religious reasons we kindle the lights of Chanukah is "in order to give thanks and to praise God's great name for God's miracles, wonders and redemption." Traditionally, we recite these words along with the brachot as part of the candlelighting ceremony each evening.
For many of us, especially for our children, Chanukah has become a season of gelt and getting. The idea that Chanukah is really about giving thanks, thanks for all that sustains our lives, for our historical identity and for a future vision of goodness that defines our hopes and values, probably surprises many people.
My family and I also share in the commercial culture of Chanukah in America. I'm delighted to do so, to reinforce Jewish affinity and happiness for my children and our community. But I'm only comfortable doing this if they can also appreciate the spiritual core and moral message of this holiday. Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish religious identity.
In America, especially in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we are fond of declaring that the Hasmoneans were fighting for religious freedom. Actually, they were fighting to preserve, and even promulgate, their faith in God's Torah and Judaism. The focus of their liberation efforts was the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Most historians suggest that the Greco-Syrian ruler Antiochus' persecution of Jewish practice was based on decrees that had been initiated by secular, assimilated Jews. A few other historians propose that those persecutions did not precede, but rather followed, the Maccabean revolt. They constituted the king's punishment of the pious Jews who first rebelled against Antiochus' rule in the name of Torah.
In either case, the Maccabees were motivated by the Jewish people's covenant with God. It was their religious identity and practice that the they were seeking to protect. The purpose of rededicating the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E. was to restore a powerful symbol of God's dwelling presence in the midst of the people. The lights in our Chanukah menorahs represent that same belief and religious ideal today.
Yet, our celebration of the Temple's rededication on Chanukah presents an interesting paradox: Why do we still celebrate the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E. when, in the end, it was destroyed by the Romans 235 years later in 70 C.E.? Remember, the Temple was ancient Judaism's central institution. The rites of offering and prayer observed there sought closeness to God for every person. With the end of that era, over time Chanukah, too, was lost -- only to be recreated by later generations as the holiday we enjoy.
Today, Chanukah's celebration of the Temple's rededication acknowledges what was lost in spiritual expression because of its destruction.
On Chanukah, we hope for a restoration of nearness to God's presence. We remember the Temple's rededication in order to recognize the religious values that can live in the hearts of Jews in every generation. I hope that Chanukah's popularity might reflect this desire to nurture Jewish religious values and distinctiveness at a time when religious images and celebrations are so important to many of our neighbors and friends.
Chanukah's meaning lies in this reality. To live as a Jew today means to live distinctly within a larger society, to be challenged toward the fullest expression of Jewish life. We are blessed today with the privilege of seeking purpose in our particular religious identity and celebrations. We have that in common with the Hasmoneans, even as we acknowledge their zeal to be separate from the host Hellenistic culture of their own time.
Literally, a Jew, Yehudi, is "one who gives thanks to God." Judaism provides a structure for our lives and our values that inspires gratitude for the wonder and mystery of being.
Jewish religious identity is an expression of appreciation, humility and responsibility for human life and for our world's destiny. The moral mandate of Chanukah is not to receive, but to give.
We give thanks to God for life and for that which is miraculous in our daily lives. We can also give something of ourselves to others -- to our family, friends and the people of our society. In our attitude of gratitude and acts of thanksgiving, we truly celebrate Chanukah.
Ron Shulman is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.