07 December 2023

Hopes for light, peace
and freedom at
times of darkness
during Hanukkah

‘At times of deep darkness instead of walking in fear / Let us kindle Godly lights’

Patrick Comerford

Hanukkah (Chanukah) חֲנֻכָּה‎), which begins this evening, is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime ‘Festival of Lights’, celebrated with lighting a candle on the menorah each successive night, with special prayers and accompanied with special, season foods and family games.

Hanukkah begins on the eve of Kislev 25 and continues for eight days. In the civil calendar, it generally coincides with the month of December, and this year Hanukkah runs from today (7 December) until 15 December 2023.

The Hebrew word Hanukkah means ‘dedication’, and the festival celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. The story of Hanukkah is told in I and II Maccabees, which describe in detail the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah.

In the second century BCE, the region was ruled by the Seleucids, Syrian-Greeks who tried to force the Jewish people to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of Jewish beliefs and religious practices. Against all odds, a small band of poorly armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated what was then one of the mightiest armies on earth. They drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.

When they went to light the Menorah or seven-branched candelabrum in the Temple, they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, they lit the Menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

To commemorate these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Hanukkah, which was already a major festival in New Testament times.

Saint John’s Gospel recalls, ‘At that time the festival of the Dedication (ἐγκαίνια) took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon’ (John 10: 22-23, NRSVA). The Greek noun used there appears in the neuter plural as ‘the renewals’ or ‘the consecrations’ (τὰ ἐγκαίνια; ta enkaínia). The same root appears in II Esdras 6: 16 in the Septuagint to refer specifically to Hanukkah. This Greek word was chosen because the Hebrew word for ‘consecration’ or ‘dedication’ is Hanukkah (חנכה‎).

In Modern Hebrew, Hanukkah may also be called the Festival of Lights (חַג הַאוּרִים‎), based on a comment by Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews: καὶ ἐξ ἐκείνου μέχρι τοῦ δεῦρο τὴν ἑορτὴν ἄγομεν καλοῦντες αὐτὴν φῶτα (‘And from then on we celebrate this festival, and we call it Lights). The first Hebrew translation of Antiquities (1864) used (חַג הַמְּאֹרוֹת‎) ‘Festival of Lamps,’ but the translation ‘Festival of Lights’ (חַג הַאוּרִים‎) appeared by the end of the 19th century.

These are very dark times indeed in Israel, the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank. Rabbi Warren Stone of Temple Emanuel, the oldest Reform Jewish Congregation in Montgomery County, Maryland, has tried to shine some light in these dark times by posting this timely and appropriate reflection for Hanukkah this year:

A Hanukkah prayer for freedom:

Source of Creation and Life of the Universe
We gather together on Hanukkah
As Jews of conscience
with a deep spiritual bond to the lights of freedom.

We are grateful for the inner might of the Maccabees
Who fought to reclaim a Jerusalem in despair
And rekindle the lights of human freedom.

Freedom has many faces:
Freedom from war and conflict or threats of terror
Freedom to have a secure home
Freedom from hunger, poverty and despair.

Freedom is deeply personal as well:
Freedom to express one’s gender identity without fear
Freedom to express one’s racial identity without fear
Freedom to make choices about of life and deepest beliefs
Freedom to live our faith in all of its beauty
without negating anyone else’s.

Our Hanukkah menorah with its eight branches and
Kindling light
Remind us of the diversity on our Earth
Bound together with a branch of Oneness.
It is a reminder that we are interconnected as a
Global Community.

We are diverse yet equal in our world: Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Hindi,
Buddhist, Sikh, and Humanist.

At times of deep darkness instead of walking in fear
Let us kindle Godly lights
Lights within and lights beyond
And let us increase these lights each day
To light the way for All.

Chag Sameach

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