2, 178 years ago, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in the year 164 BCE, a band of freedom fighters achieved an important victory in their quest for liberation. Following a three year struggle against the Assyrian Greek occupying power and tyrannical regime of Emperor, Antiochus IV, who had banned the teaching and practice of Judaism, the Maccabees retook the Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt the altar and re-kindled the M’norah, the seven-branched candelabra. It took another 24 years for national independence to be realised in 140 BCE, but the reclamation of Jewish life marked the turning point in the struggle, and has been celebrated with the Festival of Chanukkah ever since.
After the Temple was finally destroyed once and for all by another occupying power – the Romans, in 70 CE – Jewish life has centred on the home and the synagogue, and continued, primarily, through study, prayer, ritual and ethical action, and the cycle of the Sabbath and the festivals. Nevertheless, Jews the world over celebrate Chanukkah each year because its message of hope has continued to resonate down the centuries, through all the dark times that the Jewish people has endured: the hope that the oppressed and persecuted will go free.
The festival revolves around a simple ceremony: the lighting of candles each evening for eight days: one candle on the first evening, two on the second evening, and so on. There are two reasons why Chanukkah lasts eight days. The first is straightforward: the freedom fighters had missed the seven-day autumn Festival of Sukkot, and concluding eighth day of Sh’mini Atzeret (2 Maccabees 10:6-8). The second reason is the most well-known: the tale of the miracle of the one day’s supply of Temple oil that lasted for eight (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Even for those who do not believe in miracles, the story serves as an important reminder that it requires much more than physical prowess to achieve liberation. As we read in the passage from Zechariah, read on Shabbat Chanukkah: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the God of Hosts’ (4:6). At Chanukkah, Jews celebrate, not a military victory, but the triumph of the spirit.
The hope of liberation is not confined to one people. Chanukkah proclaims a message of hope for all oppressed peoples. In view of the events of the past year and the most persistent examples of oppression, this Chanukkah, let us dedicate our candle-lighting on successive nights to:
1st Candle: the peoples of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq
2nd Candle: the Palestinians
3rd Candle: the peoples of Nigeria and Mali
4th Candle: the peoples of Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan
5th Candle: the North Korean people
6th Candle: the people of Tibet
7th candle: the Tamils of Sri Lanka
8th Candle: All other oppressed peoples.
May the gathering flames inspire us to support the cause of freedom in every place.