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Chanukah: A Story of Light Prevailing Over Might

The miracle of the Chanukah lights and our mission to make the world a better place for everyone has lasted over 2000 years!
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Photo by menachem weinreb on Unsplash

As I write this article about Chanukah, I am struck by the similarities of events in our time with the events of our ancestors. The biblical stories of floods, famine, plagues, wars, political upheavals, and civil unrest could easily make newspaper headlines today. The pandemic and extreme weather effects we are all experiencing makes our return to 'a new normal' seem farther away than any of us could have imagined a year ago. Here we are, at the end of 2021, adapting to difficult circumstances and finding ways to bring light into our troubled world. What keeps us going, I believe, is that there is a brighter future ahead even though it may be difficult to see.

The story behind the story of the Chanukah tells of just such a time, when the future of the Jewish people seemed hopeless. In 199 BCE the Greeks conquered Jerusalem and began to impose a series of laws against the Jewish people and their culture. In the clash of Greek polytheism vs Jewish monotheism, the Greeks had the upper hand. They imposed harsh laws and defiled the Temple. A small group of Jews, the Maccabees, led a revolt against the Greeks that lasted for about two years. They recaptured the Temple, and set about restoring and rededicating it for Jewish worship. The word Chanukah means rededication and it became the name of this holiday.

Strangely, this holiday is not included in the Jewish bible. It appears as almost a footnote in our own scriptures: in Megillat Taanit (the Scroll of Fasting) Chanukah is listed as a holiday when we do not fast; in the Talmud the explanation for Chanukah tells of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.  In fact, Chanukah is the only Jewish festival that you can read about in non-Jewish sources: Maccabees I and II are part of the Catholic canon, and historians write about this military victory of the Jews as a turning point in history--it was the beginning of the end of the Greek empire and the beginning of the rise of the Roman Empire. It was an event that changed the history of the world.

So why isn't Chanukah and the books of the Maccabees in the Jewish bible? It seems that when our Sages were choosing what to include in our canon, they chose to omit the story of the Maccabees and to focus instead on the restoring of the Temple. Since many celebrations had to be postponed because of the war, the leaders of the Jewish community declared a thanksgiving holiday to make up for the eight-day festival of Sukkot that they had missed in the fall. The holiday became known as Chanukah, which means dedication.

I wonder how we will remember this pandemic time in our history. What stories will be told about the heroes of our time? Will those stories focus on darkness and disruption or on the goodness and compassion that so many people have given to and received from others?

The military victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks lasted only 100 years. In the end, the leaders became as corrupt as their predecessors before the Roman Empire conquered them and destroyed the Temple completely. The miracle of the Chanukah lights and our mission to make the world a better place for everyone has lasted over 2000 years! Which story would you choose to celebrate?

Fiona Prince, MA is a coach and teacher who provides fundamental communication and writing skills through her own company and through Royal Roads Professional & Continuing Studies. Fiona acknowledges that her home and office are located on the traditional territories of the W̱SÁNEĆ and Lkwungen-speaking peoples, on whose traditional territories, she is thankful to live, learn, play, and do her work.  She worships at the Chabad Family Shul in Victoria and teaches children and adults how to read Hebrew. Contact her at morahfaiga@princeheron.com if you would like to study with her.

You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, here - https://www.timescolonist.com/blogs/spiritually-speaking

* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday. December 4th 2021