Hanukkah (November 29 to December 6, 2021), the festival of lights, recalls the victory more than 2,100 years ago of a materially weak, but spiritually strong, Jewish people over the mighty forces of a ruthless enemy that had captured the Holy Land, threatening to engulf the land and its people in darkness. The miraculous victory culminated with the dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the rekindling of the menorah, which had been desecrated and extinguished by the enemy.
Lighting the Hanukkah menorah is a symbol of the triumph of freedom over oppression and spirit over matter — a timely message, for the forces of darkness are ever-present today. As our sages said, “A little light dispels a lot of darkness.” The Hanukkah lights remind us in the most obvious way that illumination begins at home with one’s self and family. As the lights are kindled in growing numbers from day to day, so much we increase and intensify the light of the Torah and Mitzvot in the everyday experience.
The Maccabees were no match for the most powerful Greek army in the world at that time — but with their strong belief and determination, the Maccabees were eventually victorious and declared independence. Upon entering the Holy Temple, they found a disgraceful mess of idols, forbidden foods and broken pottery. The temple’s six-foot menorah had to be lit with pure, untampered olive oil — and since the Greeks had deliberately defiled the oil, the Maccabees searched until they found a small jug of pure oil hidden with the seal of the High Priest. Miraculously, the oil, which should have burned for one day, lasted eight days.
Miracle for Today
The lights of the Hanukkah menorah are more than a reminder of ancient miracles — they are meant to provide illumination in our contemporary daily lives. In fact, the Hanukkah miracles of old are re-enacted in our observance today. That is one reason why we say, in the second blessing recited over the Hanukkah lights, “Blessed are You … who wrought miracles for our ancestors — in those days, at this time.” By reflecting upon the significance of the Hanukkah miracles, we can see with ever-increasing clarity the miraculous dimensions of those events in our own time.
Redemption, Against All Odds
In the time of King Antiochus, the fate of the Jewish people seemed grim indeed. The vastly outnumbered Maccabees were up against the world’s most sophisticated military machine, and many of their own brethren were all too wiling to forsake their heritage and assimilate into the Hellenistic culture. It was the proverbial “darkest hour before the dawn.”
Yet, sure enough, with the dawn and with G-d’s help came the miraculous, unprecedented victory. Throughout the ages, Hanukkah has signified the miraculous triumph of the weak over the strong, the pure over the impure and the righteous over the wicked. Whenever the integrity of the Jewish people is under siege, no matter how dark the night, the Hanukkah lights proclaim that deliverance is near.
Spreading the Light
The menorah is lit either in the doorway or in a front window so that it can be seen outside in the street. This teaches that it is not enough to bring light into our own private domain, but that we must spread the light and warmth of the Torah to the outer environment as well.
Brighter and Brighter
Each night of Hanukkah, we add another light to the menorah until all eight lamps shine on the final night. With every added flame, we go from strength to strength in deepening our commitment to the values and traditions of our Jewish way of life.
Illuminating the Darkness
The Hanukkah menorah is lit only after nightfall, which signifies that our purpose is to illuminate the darkness of the world, until the time when, as the Prophet says, “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.” It may be difficult to perceive G-dliness in our everyday lives, but Hanukkah reminds us of G-dliness even in our darkest moments: that the light of knowledge can shine brightly and that redemption is at hand if we will kindle just one more lamp.
The Ultimate Miracle
Today, the Hanukkah lights have special relevance. Many among us despair ever witnessing the dawn of the reception, and after nearly 2,000 years, it may seem that the cold, hard realities of exile have all but erased our age- old faith in the coming of Moshiach to lead us toward a perfect world. But, Hanukkah reminds us that G-d grants redemption in the blink of an eye, and that the light of G-dliness can brighten even the darkest night.
On Hanukkah, it is traditional to give children Hanukkah gelt (money). This custom can add to the children’s happiness and festive spirit for the holiday, and affords the opportunity to give them positive reinforcement for exemplary behaviors.
The Origin of the Dreidel
When the Greeks decreed that the study of the Torah was a crime punishable by death or imprisonment, the children defiantly studied in secret — and when the Greek patrols were spotted, the children would pretend to be playing an innocent game of dreidel. The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top, which is also called a s’vivon in Hebrew. On each side of the top is a Hebrew letter: “Nun,” “Gimmel,” “Hay” and “Shin.” The letters represent the phrase, “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there.”
Wishing you a happy Hanukkah! May this Festival of Lights bring blessings upon you and all of your loved ones for happiness and health, and usher in a better world for all of humankind.
Rabbi David Laine, director
Friends of Chabad Vocational Schools