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What Chanukah is Really About

Latkes, menorah, dreidels, gelt, miracles - what's not to like?  But let's remember the story.  The Jewish people are forced to live under the rule of a King (Antiochus) who is determined to squeeze every ounce of Judaism and spirituality out of their lives.  Antiochus prohibits ritual circumcision.  He prohibits the observance of the Sabbath.  Had he simply collected taxes from his subjects, the Maccabees would probably never have happened.  Instead Antiochus set up royal altars throughout the land and mandated that Jews sacrifice pigs on those altars.  The King fully realized how our ancestors would react, but he did it anyway.  Forcing Jews to turn their backs on their own religion was the King's way of imposing his will.

As with so many moments on the stage of history it only takes one person to step forward and inspire others to follow.  Mattathias met that moment.  One day he stepped forward and said, "Enough is enough!"  An emissary of the King had commanded Jews to offer still another sacrifice of swine to the Greek gods.  We don't know if Mattathias had been planning a revolt all along or he just said it in the heat of the moment.  But the bottom line is that we celebrate Chanukah today because one man, at one moment in time, spoke out. Speaking led to inspiring and inspiring led to acting and acting led to courage and courage led to triumph.  Yes I know that Chanukah is about the oil that miraculously lasts for eight nights.  But Chanukah is also about a small group of people who miraculously triumph against the odds.  How do they triumph?  Passion - persistence - and the belief that in life it's not by might, but by right that we must live our days.

Chanukah is called the Festival of Lights to remind us that there will be moments when we are faced with great darkness.  Anyone who takes a thoughtful look at our society will see a fair amount of darkness.  Race riots, Isis, Iran, Immigration, Healthcare - shall I go on?

This year in France anti-Semitic threats and incidents have more than doubled.  Recently a 19 year old woman and her 21 year old boyfriend were in their home in a Paris suburb.  Three men broke into the home, because as the authorities later learned after capturing the men - "We knew the couple were Jews, so we thought they would have money and valuables in the home."  The three intruders tied up the boyfriend and raped the woman.   I call that darkness.

Examples of darkness reign supreme.  More than 120 senior military political and diplomatic figures across the world have signed a public letter warning world leaders that the chances of nuclear war are increasing every day.  This public letter was released ahead of a conference in Vienna on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.  These military and political leaders believe that we are all at risk, not only because of the increasing tension around the world, but because so many nuclear weapon stockpiles are not properly secured.  I call that darkness.

I suppose that we can take a snapshot at any point in history and point to areas of extreme concern, if not darkness.  But what complicates this moment in time is the cold hard fact that the vast majority of people across this country seem to have little confidence in Washington, D.C. - from the President of the United States, to every member of Congress, on both sides of the aisle.  People are hungry for leadership.  People are hungry for inspiration.  People are hungry for a "Mattathias moment" in which someone, who is not interested in power and notoriety, but who is instead only interested in the well-being of the country, steps forwards and says - "Enough is enough.  The darkness in the world is thick enough and there is a way out if we are willing to take the journey."

Yes, Chanukah is about latkes, menorahs, dreidels and gelt.  But it is also about leaders meeting the moment.  Few people knew of Mattathias until he met the moment.  The story of Chanukah is so hopeful because chances are that we will not know the next Mattathias until he steps forward.  But the point of Chanukah is that such people will step forward to meet the moment.  It's only a matter of time and faith.  Maybe that is what Chanukah is really all about.


Rabbi Ira Rothstein