Growing up, my non-Jewish friends were fascinated with Chanukah because my parents gave me gifts for eight nights. Most agreed all those presents made up for not being on Santa’s list. (The jury is still out on this one for me because what my friends didn’t know is that at least five of those eight gifts were socks and underwear.)
But, of course, just like Christmas, Chanukah is not really about gifts.
Chanukah is often described as the Festival of Lights, celebrating the miracle that a one-day supply of oil burned for eight days. While this is certainly one facet of the holiday, the Hebrew word “Chanukah” literally means “dedication.” The story of Chanukah is aptly named because it is about the rededication of the Holy Temple after the Maccabees defeated the Greeks (who had appropriated the Temple and forbidden the observance and practice of Judaism).
As I celebrate Chanukah with my toddler this year, I am enjoying his delight opening gifts, his awe seeing the candles on the menorah burn, and his giggles as the dreidel spins (and I’m enjoying my fill of fried foods – because, hello, fried foods!). But I also find myself in a different holiday mindset, reflecting on gratitude, freedom, light, and rededication.
Chanukah is a celebration of miracles: It is believed to be a miracle the menorah oil lasted for eight nights instead of one. While we may not all believe in miracles, I think we can all agree the unexpected does happen from time to time, and sometimes we’re incredibly grateful for it. As I watch the light from the menorah candles glow, I say thanks for the unexpected blessings in my life.
The Maccabees fought the Greeks for their right to practice Judaism, for their freedom of religion. We are lucky in this country (for the most part) to be able to practice whichever religion or religions we choose – and we even have the freedom to not practice religion at all. This is a freedom not readily afforded in other places in the world, and Chanukah is a great reminder of what a privilege this freedom is.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of darkness in our world. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” We light the menorah every night for eight nights, spreading the light more and more each day. This tradition of the Festival of Lights reminds us that we all the ability to spread light and drive out darkness. From random acts of kindness to standing up for the rights of our neighbors, these days leading up to the New Year are the perfect time to think about how we can be the light.
Just as the Maccabees rededicated the Holy Temple, this is a time of year when a lot of us rededicate ourselves to our own practice of Judaism. But our reflection of our dedication shouldn’t stop at religion. What else do you want or need to rededicate yourself to? A person? Your budget? A good habit? This year, I’m thinking about how I can rededicate myself to my passion projects and self-care.
While Chanukah will always conjure up the brightness of candlelight and the taste of potato latkes, what these symbols represent provide important life reminders – no matter what your faith tradition is.