Why Celebrate Chanukah?

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By Lawrence Ziffer
Executive Vice President
The Macks Center for Jewish Education

By now, most of us have been sufficiently entertained with descriptions and details about this year’s big story: several unique flukes in the calendar have resulted in an extremely rare convergence of Thanksgiving with the first day of Chanukah. This is actually an extraordinary teaching moment. We teach our children about how we celebrate our Jewish holidays based upon the lunar calendar and why this convergence is so unusual. Unfortunately, this teaching moment has been overshadowed by the novelty of creating portmanteau words like Thanksgivukah and Menurky.

We all know why we celebrate Thanksgiving. As children we were taught about the Plymouth feast marking the completion of a successful first harvest in 1621. We learned about how the Pilgrims desired to express thanks to G-d for their bounty. (In fact, there are interesting parallels between the celebrations of the Jewish Sukkot and Thanksgiving as harvest festivals.)

But why do we celebrate Chanukah? Surely we should be at least as aware of our religious heritage and traditions as we are of our secular American traditions. If so, we need to move beyond the dreidels and the latkes and use this teachable moment to review what is so special about Chanukah. Otherwise, it is all-too-easily conflated with other secular and non-Jewish religious holidays that fall at approximately the same time of year.

The Talmud (our compendium of rabbinic law) and Siddur (our Jewish prayer book) provide us with two important explanations about why we celebrate Chanukah. The Siddur contains the Al HaNisim prayer, thanking G-d for the miracle of a military victory. A small band of Hasmonean patriots began a revolution which resulted in the defeat of the Syrian-Greek army, the most powerful army in the known world at the time. Al HaNisim recounts the fact that a few defeated the many against all odds.  hey went on to rededicate the Holy Temple, celebrating their victory for eight days with praise and thanks to G-d.

The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, adds another dimension, telling us that when the priests entered the Temple and attempted to relight the Menorah, amidst the destruction and refuse they found only one cruse of untainted oil, enough to last just one day. Here we learn of the other Chanukah miracle in which the oil lasted for eight days, sufficient time to procure a new supply and keep the Menorah lit.  The Menorah went on to symbolize forever our ability to overcome the darkness imposed upon us by those who would try to destroy our faith.

The common themes of these two stories are the readiness to believe in miracles and the readiness to be unique. Chanukah is all about uniqueness. The Syrian Greeks did not want to destroy us or our Torah.  They could have easily defeated Israel and laid waste to the country. They could also have destroyed all the oil rather than defile it and leave it in the Temple. Instead, they set their sights on Hellenizing us and compromising our uniqueness. They tried to seduce us into merging our Jewish heritage with their Greek culture. They wanted to bring their Greek gods into our Holy Temple and convince us to give up our last vestiges of pride in being different, so that we would readily accept what they considered to be an advanced culture of human intellectual and physical achievements.

Thanking G-d for our military victory and for our spiritual survival is the distinctly Jewish way. It is antithetical to the Hellenistic culture of that time and perhaps to the secular culture of our own time.  The Jewish way is to remain humble and acknowledge that Divine intervention is the only possible explanation for our persistent survival in the face of overwhelming odds throughout Jewish history.  Throughout the millennia, our pride has produced a fierce determination to preserve our uniqueness, to celebrate without embarrassment the fact that we are mission driven and that we are challenged to be a light unto the nations.

So this year, let us celebrate Chanukah and let us celebrate Thanksgiving. We don’t need to create new holiday names or rituals. We already have plenty of traditions and resources to teach our families and friends about our extraordinary religious tradition that encourages pride in being unique and about the importance of appreciating this great bountiful country that allows us to be free … and unique.

Our ancestors were willing to do battle in the face of overwhelming odds (and the probability of defeat) to defend their right to be unique. Let us do what we can to pass that tradition on to our children and grandchildren while we light our Chanukah Menorah, spin our dreidels, eat our latkes … and even enjoy some turkey!

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