Finding True Courage and Freedom in the Spirit of Chanukah

On December 12, we will gather with family and friends to celebrate the beginning of the Festival of Lights. This year, as you fry your latkes and light the first candles, consider taking a closer look at the typical symbols of Chanukah. You may discover that one underlying theme of the holiday is ometz lev, or courage, and how we partner with God in making “miracles” happen. The core texts of Jewish tradition remind us how the Hasmonean family stood up to the wave of Hellenization sweeping over the Syrian Greek empire around the first century BCE. Could the heroics of the Maccabees be a model for us today—but NOT in the context of social conflict and war?

In November, we were fortunate to learn from Rabbi Paul Steinberg who led a session at Federation’s ROUTES: A Day of Jewish Learning, entitled “Addiction and Jewish Spirituality.” Rabbi Steinberg explored addiction from a Jewish perspective and pointed to Jewish spiritual practice as a path toward integrative recovery. Rabbi Steinberg’s expertise did not come just because he is a rabbi, but because he is actually a brave Maccabee who had to find the courage to fight his own addiction.

In his book “Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality: Reclaiming Hope, Courage and Wholeness,” Rabbi Steinberg opens with:

Hello, my name is Paul and I’m an alcoholic. This is the hardest sentence I have ever said aloud. It took me years to say it and actually mean what I said…. I also found that my Jewish identity provided an additional challenge to identifying as an alcoholic… Whether it was Jewish guilt, or the unspoken rule that Jews do not hang out our dirty laundry, or that being an alcoholic doesn’t happen to “nice Jewish boys” (and rabbis), I spent a long time denying the truth about my disease.”

When we consider our people’s foundations in bravery, it is ironic that we have such difficulty finding the courage to break down stereotypes and create support for individuals in recovery.: Our ancestor Abraham argues with God about just behavior, our prophets spoke truth to power, our ideals of “just saying NO” for freedom powered the Maccabees and our New Year starts by standing as a community to confess our shortcomings!

We know that a tool for healthy living and sustainable recovery is the art of reflection and asking ourselves tough questions. So, as we plan our Chanukah celebrations, perhaps a new tradition can be to use one night’s candle lighting to “shine light and reveal truth” about human nature and the world of addictive behaviors, and our communal responsibility to support and care for people in recovery and their families.

Here are a few suggested discussion questions:

  • Some say that addiction is a disease, and others believe it’s a choice. What do you think, and why? How do you believe counseling, support groups or other treatments could help a person who struggles with addiction?
  • Many people use drugs as a crutch to help them handle difficult emotions such as anger, depression and anxiety. These emotions are challenging for everyone, and it can be hard to resist the temptation of an easy escape. What choices does a person have, other than drug use, when they are confronted with these painful emotions?
  • How can we help lower the barriers for those seeking help with addictions and recovery? What role can we play in getting rid of stigma and guilt? How can we nurture courage in ourselves, family and friends to speak out for others?
  • What Jewish spiritual tools (like a rest ethic [Shabbat], and eating ethic [kashrut], understanding our creation in the “image of God,” the role of repentance and reflection [teshuva], etc.) could we use to reflect on our individual and collective responsibility to create a safe, supportive and inclusive community for people in recovery and their families?

You can also add a discussion about the importance of courage in other settings—from the school classroom and play yard, to the office and in board meetings, from political rallies to the ballot box. To add to your knowledge on the challenges of addiction and recovery, visit Federation’s Addiction Resources page on Jconnect.

This Chanukah, you can be the candle that courageously lights itself with truth, or you can be the shamash, the helper candle, that supports the flame of others by lending your courage to their cause.

Wishing you and yours a joyous and meaningful Chanukah celebration, from all of us at