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December and Dedication

December is that time of year when being a Jew in America feels particularly complicated. Whether we are dealing with the "December dilemma" or are just a bit overwhelmed by the ubiquity of Christmas decorations and Santas, it's not the easiest time to be Jewish. How ironically fitting, then, that this year Hanukah-the Jewish holiday which deals most directly with the complications of life as a minority culture - falls right on Christmas Eve.

The historical background to Hanukah is that, in 167 B.C.E., a group of Jewish zealots-Judah Maccabee and his brothers, later known as the Hasmoneans - challenged the attempt by the Greek-Syrian rulers of Jerusalem to ban traditional Jewish practices and force the Jewish population to assimilate to the dominant Hellenistic culture. This was not only a popular rebellion, but a civil war as well: the Hasmonean zealots killed other Jews who dared transgress Torah laws. After defeating the occupying forces, the Maccabees rededicated the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem.

There are parallels between then and now. The Hellenism of 167 BCE was in many ways similar to American culture in 2000: a global force that absorbed and weakened other cultures as it spread worldwide. Just as assimilation is a hot topic in the American Jewish community today, many Jews of that time were similarly attracted to Hellenism and had abandoned traditional Jewish practices. But although on Hanukkah we celebrate Jewish courage in overcoming a cultural threat, the historical Maccabees-who were, essentially, violent religious extremists-can't really be role models for 20th century liberal American Jews. It is more useful, perhaps, to learn from the rabbis of the Talmudic era who created the holiday of Hanukah by transforming the historical story of the Maccabees.

It is in the Talmud that we first find the-now famous--story of the little vial of lamp oil which lasted for a miraculous eight days. In honor of this "miracle" the rabbis ordained that we light candles for eight nights. And it was the rabbis who established the haftarah reading - a selection from the prophet Zechariah - for the Shabbat during Hanukah, which includes this wonderful verse: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says Adonai of hosts."

In creating the holiday of Hanukah, the ancient rabbis clearly wanted to downplay the militaristic aspects of the historical tradition, and to emphasize the importance of faith in God over faith in human power (which may have been wise, given the fact that the Hasmonean rulers went on to become Hellenized themselves, and very corrupt). Just as the rabbis "reconstructed" the tradition they had received to create a meaningful celebration, so too we are challenged to discover what Hanukah can mean for us today.

The rabbinic Hanukah centers around the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem (the word "hanukah" means "dedication"). The Temple was the successor to the mishkan, that structure in the wilderness, built by the Israelite community --which enabled the Presence of the Holy One to dwell among the people.

For me, the mishkan is a symbol of all that we want to create together as a Jewish community, and as a larger society. The lights we light over Hanukah remind us of the mishkan, and give us an opportunity to "rededicate" ourselves to creating a society and a world in which the Godly can "dwell." What will help bring light into the world, and how can each of us bring some of that light? These are questions we can ask as we kindle our Hanukah candles this year. I wish you a holiday filled with light and song and the possibility of world ruled not by might and not by power, but by the Spirit that moves and works through each of us.
Type: Dvar Torah