Hanukkah, Pittsburgh, 5779 …
Slowly emerging from the depths of sadness, we tentatively approach Hanukkah. Finally, a modicum of happiness awaits. We reach for the text and open it to the Book of Maccabees, chapter one. Shocked, we blink, and blink again. The words of the past cry out from the page:
“Thus, they shed innocent blood on every side of the sanctuary and defiled it. …” There was “a large massacre,” followed by a “great mourning in Israel, in every place where they were …”
The stomach turns. The throat constricts. Realization dawns. They went through it too …. In those days, at this season …
Anguished, we ask ourselves: Is this, then, the essence of Jewish history–one long tortured retelling of violated sanctuaries and murdered Jews, over and over? Is this the untold reality of Hanukkah–a saga of defilement and death, hidden behind a miraculous façade?
Say then: What could possibly have made Hanukkah into a celebration? Pray tell: Where in this landscape of bitter destruction is there any cause for hope?
Here’s where: At the time when the sanctuary was desecrated, and the people pitilessly put to the sword, there were two Jewish responses:
One response was, essentially, that the time had come for Jews to blend into the surrounding culture because carrying the message of the Jewish people was too painful: “Let us go, they said, and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: For since we departed from them, we have had much sorrow.”
The other response was the exact opposite. We will never stop being Jews, declared the second group, and we will never let anybody define our Judaism for us, or cause us to retreat one iota from our ideals. Come what may, we will carry Judaism forward on Torah terms, and we will overcome those who would seek to oppose us or those who might propose to give up. They were the Maccabees, and we are their heirs.
The word “Hanukkah” means “dedication” or “rededication,” and it recalls two pivotal affirmations. On the physical level, it refers to the fact that on the 25th of Kislev the Maccabees confronted a shattered, ransacked sanctuary, and they immediately rededicated the building to the service of God.
But, perhaps even more significantly, the Maccabees responded to the reality of violent attack by rededicating themselves to their Judaism. They resolved that their Jewish commitment would not be the same as it was before; rather it would rise to a higher level. Through the centuries, we have celebrated Hanukkah, despite its tragic origins, because the Maccabees showed us how to rededicate ourselves to Jewish practice, and how to spread the light of Judaism further in even the darkest night.
Let us then resolve that in our day, in this place, we will mark Hanukkah by following in their footsteps–with a resolute rededication to enlarging our commitment to Judaism that is every bit as dynamic as that of our ancestors who showed us the way.
Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff is the Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and the President of the Museum of Jewish Ideas.