A Chanukah Message of Hope

Sunday at sundown, hundreds of Jewish residents of Bedford will join millions worldwide to begin the eight-day celebration of Chanukah.

There is a universal message inherent in this relatively minor Jewish holiday, a message that seems especially pertinent now, as the nation and, indeed, the world confronts challenges: a deadly and evolving virus, the inexorable changing climate, widening inequality, growing polarization.

That message was beautifully articulated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, in a 2012 essay. Described as “a celebrated moral thinker and globally renowned intellect of Judaism,” Sacks died in November 2020 at age 72.

According to Rabbi Lord Sacks (he was a member of the House of Lords), the significance of Chanukah was transformed by time. “It began as the simple story of military victory, the success of Judah the Maccabee and his followers as they fought for religious freedom…”

A few centuries later, after Roman forces had destroyed the Jewish nation, when thousands of lives were lost and the future looked bleak, “The work of the Maccabees now lay in ruins.”

Rabbi Sacks pointed out that some rabbis at the time “believed that the festival of Chanukah should be abolished. Why celebrate a freedom that has been lost?”

However, he continued, “That was when another story came to the fore, about how the Maccabees, in purifying the temple, found a single cruse of oil… Miraculously the light lasted eight days, and that became the central narrative of Chanukah.  It became a festival of light within the Jewish home, symbolizing a faith that could not be extinguished.”

That is a human message, Rabbi Sacks taught, not just a Jewish one. Freedom may have been lost, he wrote, but not hope.

“We celebrate military victories. We tell stories about the heroes of the past. We commemorate those who gave their lives in defense of freedom. This is as it should be,” Rabbi Sacks concluded. “Yet the real victories that determine the fate of nations are not so much military as cultural, moral, and spiritual.”

“Something in the human spirit survives even the worst of tragedies, allowing us to rebuild shattered lives, broken institutions, and injured nations.”

As different faiths converge to bring light to this darkest time of the year, I hope our community will continue to demonstrate that we have faith in each other – even when we disagree – and trust in the institutions that have served us well for generations.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763

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