By Rabbi Steven Schwarzman
(AJNews) – As we learn in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which we’re currently studying in our Zoom classes at Beth Shalom, there is a time for everything. Life has its joys and its sorrows, its triumphs and its challenges. And that brings us to the story of Hanukkah.
I wrote in this space two years ago about the miracle of the oil appearing for the first time in the Talmud’s tractate Shabbat, finalized some 700 years after the historical events of Hanukkah. The candles that we light today recall how the oil was found to light the menorah in the Temple, and lasted long enough for more pure oil to be produced.
But the real story of Hanukkah isn’t about the oil. It’s about the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees, going against the grain to re-establish Judaism as the religion of the Jews. Yes, it’s rather astonishing, but the post-Biblical books of Maccabees make it clear that many Judeans were perfectly happy to give up Judaism, and not just in a metaphoric sense, to become Greeks like everyone else. The Maccabees saw what was happening and did what they needed to do to defeat the Syrian Greeks and their Judean sympathizers.
The Temple had been defiled, so the Maccabees got to work to fix it up once the battles were over. They built a new altar, crafted new vessels for use in the Temple service, and made the preparations to resume the service. And on the 25th of Kislev, they rededicated the Temple. As it happens, that was the very day on which the Temple had been defiled three years earlier.
Since the holiday of Sukkot had passed while the Temple and Jerusalem were in foreign control, the Hasmoneans celebrated a delayed Sukkot – they actually called it Sukkot in Kislev! – for eight days. The eight days of Hanukkah were not because of the oil story, which surfaced seven centuries later, but because Sukkot (in Israel) is seven days, followed by Shemini Atzeret on the eighth day. The second book of Maccabees tells us that they brought their lulavs to the Temple – for Hanukkah!
It’s not hard to see a parallel to our own day. For almost two years now, we have not been able to gather in our synagogues as we did before. No foreigners or sympathizers were the cause, but the pandemic and the precautions we’ve all needed to take to keep everyone safe. We’ve adapted, each synagogue in its own way, but it has been two long years of limiting how we can gather together to be Jews, rejoicing at simchas and sharing grief at shivas.
It looks (as I write a few weeks before Hanukkah) that things are now moving in the right direction. The vast majority of people are now fully vaccinated, and it appears that children will soon be able to get vaccinated as well. Perhaps by Hanukkah, or perhaps a bit later, we hope to welcome everyone back in our synagogues.
We won’t bring lulavs for the occasion. But we will rededicate ourselves to Jewish life and our synagogues, and that is what Hanukkah is really about. Happy Hanukkah!
Rabbi Steven Schwarzman is the spiritual leader at Beth Shalom, Edmonton’s Egalitarian Conservative Congregation.