Rabbi Neil Schuman

The 2019 Chanukah Message
Every year when Chanukah comes around, I wonder what is its message for us now?
This past week was certainly a historical one in the annals of American politics, but also one of great disappointment. Both Republicans and Democrats are dissatisfied over the impeachment, and I believe many of us are feeling disillusionment with our government and worry over the division in our country. Chanukah, though, may actually have a relevant message for us in these troubled times.
In the days (circa 168 BCE) of Antiochus’ violence and persecution, Jews loyal to the Torah were suffering greatly. Years earlier, Alexander the Great brought Greek culture to our country, but he didn’t force it upon us. Antiochus’ madness was not only to Hellenize us, but also to say we couldn’t be Jews as well. We had to relinquish our Jewish beliefs and practices, and those that defied him paid for it dearly.
What exacerbated our suffering was our witnessing the deaths and torture of our righteous. Hardship and misery were not new to our people as we had been beaten badly before by the Assyrians and Babylonians, but in those cases the prophets had exposed our sins, and we accepted our guilt and the repercussions. Here, in contrast, we were dying while being loyal to the Torah. Where was the fairness, where was the God who was supposed to be supporting us?
To make sense of this suffering, new ideas started taking root in the Jewish psyche. Whereas heretofore Jewish belief in the afterlife was ambiguous at best, now there started to be some surety. Chapters were added to the book of Daniel that spoke of everlasting life and reward for the righteous (Daniel 12):
  1. Now at that time, Michael, the great prince (the famed Archangel), who stands beside the children of your people, will appear. It will be a time of distress the like of which has never been since the nation came into being. At that time, your people will be rescued and all who are found inscribed in the book.
  2. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others for disgrace, for eternal abhorrence.
  3. And the wise will shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.
As a response to the incomprehensible suffering, Jewish theology evolved to claim that those who died upholding our beliefs will be reborn once more to eternal life – that their martyrs’ death is not the end of them. Furthermore, those that lead the people on the path of devotion will be rewarded and shine like the stars of the firmament. In contrast, the traitors who support Antiochus, who seem to be getting away with their wickedness, will suffer eternal damnation.
Perhaps these new beliefs inspired the Maccabees and their followers. Lacking arms and sorely outnumbered, they overcame the greatest odds to free our Temple and reclaim our heritage.
Chanukah is the holiday that proclaims that when times are dark, never give up. Our little Chanukah light is a beacon of hope to those who are feeling disillusionment in life.
As time goes on, I believe the hope that Chanukah brings has become more important. If one goes back in time, one sees Chanukah becoming more and more prominent in Jewish life.
When the Mishnah, the first compilation of “Oral Law” was written down (circa 180 C.E.), it only mentions Chanukah once, and indirectly. When the Talmud was finalized (circa 500 C.E.) only 4 of its 5422 pages concern the laws of Chanukah.
In medieval times, Chanukah and Purim become the major holidays outside of the Pilgrimage festivals.
In our times, we could assuredly say that Passover and Chanukah are the two most observed holidays by Jews worldwide.
What the cause of the increase in Chanukah’s popularity? I believe it’s because of Chanukah’s message of hope. That even when things seem dark, when we’re the ultimate underdog, when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, that’s when we’re told to light a Chanukah candle. We increase that light and faith each day of Chanukah.
Right now, things are tough on a number of issues in our country and worldwide, and it’s easy to be dispirited. In ancient times, the prophets assured the idealists of eternal reward and fame for their deeds even if they would personally fail, for ultimately they would nationally succeed. Even if we’re unsure whether Daniel’s exhortations apply to us, Chanukah should reassure us to have hope. When we are down and out and outnumbered Chanukah reminds us of how salvation came from a small group of idealists. May the lights of Chanukah give us the hope and courage to persevere; things will get better!