This week, Jews around the world gather around the chanukiah to light candles and celebrate Chanukah. It’s ironic that Chanukah is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays; yet many Jewish families will celebrate Chanukah and no other Jewish holiday. The irony, of course, is that Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks to enable Jews to freely practice Judaism.
During the Maccabean times Jews were being lost to secularism as a result of assimilation and decrees by the Greek government prohibiting Jewish practices among those who still desired to live a Jewish life. Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks to enable Jews to freely practice Judaism.
Chanukah is also about rededication. In the days of the Maccabees, after their victory, they rededicated the Temple which had been desecrated during the war. Today, Chanukah provides us with the opportunity to remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be able to freely live our lives as Jews. It is also a time to reflect and to rededicate ourselves to God, the Jewish people, community and the State of Israel.
Today, in the face of assimilation and the misguided notion of universalism at the expense of healthy particularism, affiliation to Jewish institutions is down, support for Israel is waning, and anti-semitism is on the rise. All of this leads more and more Jews to walk away from their people and from Judaism.
Every time we walk away from something Jewish, we lose a little of ourselves, sometimes without realizing it. It doesn’t have to be that way. Just as many of us have chosen to walk further away, so can we come back, one step at a time, as we do the introspective work of return (teshuvah). Our traditions set up the Jewish day, and calendar year, in such a way as to encourage children and parents to focus on the most important things in life – family, community, prayer, time together, and Torah learning, and its practical application. It only takes recognition of this fact to begin the journey home.
When we forget what we have forgotten, we are lost. And when we are lost, we feel empty and alone. Today, too many people – young and old – feel lost, and lack a sense of purpose, and there is no question that one cause of this loneliness is the breakdown of community – made worse right now by our societal conflicts and the pandemic.
Humans are social animals; we rely on each other, and flourish better together than alone. Judaism is all about community, being there for one another. We all need community – and we tend to gravitate towards people with a shared identity. People also feel a need to connect and belong to something greater than ourselves, and that is what being a part of the Jewish people has to offer us.
As Jews, we are an extended family, connected to those who came before us, and those who are yet to be. As a Jewish family, we do not simply share history; we share collective memories, and traditions that not only inform who we are, but shape who we are. A family holds on to memories, shares them, and passes them down. For me, there are specific Freedman memories, and collective Jewish memories. These memories are often steeped in practices and customs that when lived, are expressions of who we are, and connect us together. These practices and values operate outside the structure of time – they are neither ancient or modern. Lighting the chanukiah, telling the story, and eating latkes are all examples of this.
I believe in the immortality of the Jewish people – that we have a reason and purpose for being on this earth. As a people we believe in many universal values but with particularistic strategies to live them – and that is what makes us separate, even as we live among others. The fullness of living a good and meaningful life comes not just from material pleasures, which are fleeting, but from meaningfully connecting with others, and working to recognize that we belong to something greater than ourselves that expects something of us and needs us to survive.
To be part of the Jewish community, our people, and God, does take time, effort, and work. It is not meant to be easy, rather meaningful. This is not only about how observant you may or may not be, or even where God, faith and spirituality fit in – though I hope you thoughtfully struggle with that as well. This is equally about how strongly you can identify and express your relationship with your Jewish family/people and its values and practices – which can bring so much joy and meaning to your lives and the lives of your children.
It is beyond dispute that no culture, society, or people can survive without educating its children in its practices, beliefs, customs, and values. When knowledge and memory are lost, so are the people. That is why the Maccabees resisted and fought against assimilation and oppression. Interestingly, the shoresh (root) of Chanukah is the same as Hinukh (education)! I know you know this because so many people reading this are part of the Schechter Kehillah. Day school families understand the importance of a Jewish education as a guarantor to a strong Jewish future.
The Maccabees were few in number, but their message and commitment were powerful enough to bring positive change. We have a compelling message for our times and a wonderful way of life to advocate for. We need to help our friends, neighbors and relatives understand that when we all light the chanukiah if we care at all about the true meaning of Chanukah, we need to begin by making sure that this generation of Jewish children receives a meaningful Jewish education so that the chanukiah will be lit for generations to come – with meaning.