You peel an artichoke from its outside layers all the way into its innermost heart. So too over the centuries Chanukah has developed layers of understanding, each of which has a contemporary message.
At its outermost and most recent layer, Chanukah has become a symbol of overt Jewish pride.
Since the first public lighting of a large hanukkiah in Union Square, San Francisco in 1975, such ceremonies have proliferated all over the world from Siberia to this year for the first time, Sanibel Island in Florida. These ceremonies literally bring Jews out of the woodwork, many who practice few if any other Jewish rituals throughout the year— turn out to publicly affirm their Jewish identity and pride.
The next inner layer is the famous story of the “little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days.
The story appears for the first time in the Talmud (B. Shabbat 21B) at the very least 300 years after the true events of the Hanukah story. It is a lovely story about how when we finally defeated the Assyrian Greek troops, we wanted to rededicate the holy temple in Jerusalem by rekindling the flame that burned continually on the altar. Alas, only a small cruse of oil was found, enough to last for one day, and it takes eight days to prepare new oil. Miraculously, the legend tells, the “little cruse of oil lasted for eight days.”
This story, familiar to every Jewish religious school child is charming, but it is actually as close to the “real” reason we celebrate Chanukah as Santa Claus is to the real reason committed Christians celebrate Christmas.
For the real story of Hanukah, we have to delve to the next layer of the artichoke.
In the second pre-Christian century a civil war broke out among the Jews of Judaea. At that time, Judaea was under the rule of the Assyrian Greek Seleucid empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
The conflict pitted the wealthy who wanted to assimilate into Greek culture against those Jews who wanted to remain loyal to their religious practices. When the conflict reached the point where Jews were fighting against Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, Antiochus sent in his troops to quell the fighting and to solve the problem by outlawing all Jewish practice and study.
For the first time in history, though, an armed struggle for religious liberty ensued. After a three year battle the Maccabees drove Antiochus’ troops from Judaea and won the right to practice their religion. During the years that Antiochus outlawed Judaism, his troops had polluted the Temple and sacrificed forbidden pigs on the sacred altar. Chanukah means” dedication. When the Jews rededicated their Temple, they declared an eight-day festival to compensate for the main fall harvest festival of Sukkot that had been proscribed.
But at an even more inner layer, Chanukah is a winter “festival of lights” to bring light to the darkest time of the year.
In that regard it is similar to many ancient cultures that found ways to celebrate light near the time of the winter solstice. It is human nature for as long as we can remember to celebrate light at the darkest time of the year.
What does that mean to us?
So many people live in darkness, and we have the power through saying nice things or doing kindly acts to bring light into their lives.
The famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 -1894) was a sickly boy. The winters in his home city of Edinburgh, Scotland are cold and dark. Each evening back then Leerie the Lamplighter would light the gas streetlights in his neighborhood. Here is what a small act of kindness meant to a sickly young boy:
by Robert Louis Stevenson
My tea is nearly ready, and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by.
Each night when it is teatime, and before you take your seat
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papá’s a banker and as rich as he can be,
But I, when I am stronger, and can choose what I would do,
O Leerie, I’ll go ‘round at night and light the lamps with you
For we are very lucky with a lamp before our door
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight.
That poem expresses the true heart of Chanukah’s message. Each of us has the power to bring light into someone else’s life And each time we use that power, we make our world a better and brighter place.