Hanukkah, Dreidels and Candles

One of the great joys I have in life is being able to teach young adults.  I love it when they learn.  And I love being a part of that process.

Around this time of the year, my Teen Academy students – all post b’nai mitzvah students who want to continue to learn with me at Religious School – demand one lesson a year on the real story of Hannukah.

Everyone know about the story about the cleansing of the temple and of the miracle of the light.  There is an element of truth in that story, to be sure.  But I asked my students a question after we read the texts on Hanukkah written by the rabbis.

If the texts were written some 600 years after the holiday, what prompted the rabbis to write them down?  Who writes the reason for a holiday six centuries after the holiday?

This puzzled the students and they came up with the answer that the only reason to teach the reason for something is if the original reason was lost.  Apparently, the miracle of the oil did not have the staying power that it does today.  So what happened?

The rabbis saw that what was being celebrated was not the miracle of the weak against the powerful or even the dedication of Jews to Judaism.  They saw that Jews were celebrating the military victory.  This leads to deeper hatred and deeper darkness.  Any military parade serves only one purpose: to prove to anyone watching it that the army can blow you up.  This is not the message the rabbis wanted to send.

So, to remedy that situation they found the nugget of the oil story in the original Greek story of Hannukah (as found it the book of 1st and 2nd Maccabees).  It took the rabbis some 600 years to codify the story and to change the emphasis.

So the real lesson of the story is to focus not on the military victory but rather on the deeper lessons.  The real miracle is being able to dismiss the urge to celebrate the war and to emphasize the light and warmth  and positive message of the holiday.

No, Mrs. Maccabee didn’t supply latkes to Judah. No, the children of Judah Maccabee didn’t play dreidel.  But their descendants did, descendants like you and me.  We eat the latkes to remind us of the oil so that we focus on the holiness of the temple and the struggle to remain Jewish and practice Judaism in freedom.  And we play dreidel because…..it is fun.  Do we really need another reason?  Can’t we simply play because it is joy?

Hanukkah is a festival of play more than anything else.  Our ancestors played ‘Greeks and Jews’ sort of like people play ‘Cops and Robbers.’  Our Sages played with the words of the story to repress the darkness and bring out the light.  Our children play the dreidel because there is nothing wrong with having fun.  And we play joyous songs simply because singing is our expression of the freedom to be Jewish and celebrate as a Jew.

So, friends, play this Hanukkah.  Have fun with your family.  Give each other the warmth of light and security.  Eat your oily and sugary things to remind yourselves of the real miracle of the holiday: the victory of light over darkness.  There is plenty of darkness in this world.  Lighting your menorah is your way of banishing it.  If that is not reason for joy, I don’t know what is.

Hag Hanukkah Sameach