Taking Chanukkah Personally – Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Over 1500 years ago, recalling the festival that began more than 400 years earlier with the rededication of the Temple in 164 BC, the Sages asked, Mah Chanukkah? What is Chanukkah? (Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 21b). We could ask ourselves the same question. But, perhaps, there is a prior question for us today: what has become of Chanukkah? Since we live in a culture that is dominated still by the Christian calendar, and given the way that the religious meaning of Christmas has become overtaken in modern society by the powerful motor of consumerism, has Chanukkah become a mini-clone of a materialist version of Christmas? Are we less concerned with the particular qualities and messages of the festival than the opportunity it gives us to brighten the winter nights, exchange presents, eat latkes and doughnuts, and have fun?
Of course, different people will give different answers to these questions – and then, who’s to say that it’s not possible to do both – to enjoy the goodies and the bling and take to heart the essence of Chanukkah as a uniquely Jewish festival?
But then, what is that essence? To repeat the question posed by the Sages: Mah Chanukkah? What is Chanukkah? They were clear: Chanukkah is a celebration of the triumph of the Eternal One represented by the miracle of the one day’s supply of oil that lasted for eight – hence the mitzvah to kindle an accumulating series of flames, night after night. But there are other narratives. Emphasising the military victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire ruled by Antiochus IV, described in the two Books of the Maccabees, and written not long after the events they describe, some see Chanukkah in nationalist terms, as a struggle for Jewish self-determination, similar to the Zionist struggle. For others, by contrast, the gathering flames, brightening the darkness, proclaim a message of hope for all persecuted peoples.
Perhaps the question we should be asking, is not, what is the essence of Chanukkah? – but, rather, recognising that there are different answers to the question, ask ourselves, what does Chanukkah mean to us; to me, here and now? This is, perhaps, the most important question – and it has profound implications. To discover what Chanukkah means to us as individuals, we need to engage, to acquaint ourselves with the festival – explore the background and participate in the rituals associated with it.
Of course, the need for personal engagement does not only apply to Chanukkah. An inspiring, challenging and complex heritage has been transmitted to us, but unless we receive our inheritance – each one of us – and make it our own, it is lost to us. Chanukkah Samei’ach!