23 December 2019
A reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher of Federation’s Jewish Education Department.
Chanukah is a deceptively complex and layered holiday. Its roots in ancient times seem somewhat detached from the modern celebrations that rival the Passover seder in popularity. Whenever I find myself confronting a disconnect between a holiday’s origins and its continuing development, I am reminded of the great educator Avraham Infeld’s observation that, “Jews don’t have history, they have memory. While history is about what happened in the past, memory is about how that past drives our present and our future… if history is prose, memory is poetry.”
The setting of the historical Chanukah is the wave of globalization in the Greek empire called Hellenization. This wave hit the State of Judea like a tsunami, bringing both opportunities and challenges to Jews and their identity and faith. Should Jews remain conservatively citizens of their own religious commonwealth, or explore a more universal culture? Is that exploration a slippery slope, a zero-sum game, or is compromise and a blended identity possible? Is any hint of compromise a sign of disloyalty and a fatal blow to Jewish culture, or can some flexibility add resiliency and a greater chance at survival? Sounds familiar? This debate was echoed at almost every historical junction of modernity, after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, during the Renaissance in the 1500s, during the Emancipation and Enlightenment 200 years ago, and still rages today in the technological and economic age of boundarylessness.
The complex history that mostly drops out of the pediatric retelling of the story and food-driven celebrations, is that beyond the tyranny of the Syrian-Greek anti-Jewish campaigns, it was a violent civil war between Jewish factions that left Judea open to conquest. Perhaps it is the scarcity of military success in Jewish history that catapulted the Maccabee family into heroic stature, despite the eventual spiraling down into its own Hasmonean dynasty of tyranny. How did Judaism cope with the rough edges of the Chanukah story? The rabbis of first century Judaism reshaped the holiday into a fight for religious freedom with a miraculous signal that it was under Divine sanction. A small jar of oil that lasts longer than it should is a wonderful metaphor for Jewish survival. Like the saying about omelets and breaking a few eggs, you can’t make light-giving oil without squeezing a bunch of olives. The military victory also inspired the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the early years of the Israel Defense Forces. Historical pressure pushes Jewish life and culture to rethink AND rededicate (the Hebrew meaning of Chanukah) itself towards creative survival. Hopefully, between the candle lighting, dreidel spinning, latke binging, and chocolate coins, some of the lessons learned in history will be transmitted as memory to the next generation.
And what “poetic” memory meaning can we make of the oil story today? The metaphors of a home dedicated to enlightened action, light projected outward as a message of hope and pride during the darkest season, and the warmth of community support for a mission of responsibility and freedom are well established in most celebrations and the marketing of this Jewish holiday in the American setting. But can we add to the interpretations and to the relevance of the symbols?
A small amount of oil that lasts for a long time, and the symbolic tie to gaining independence and preserving freedom, is a great platform for discussing the topic of the environment and renewable energy sources. Efficient and renewable sources of energy help us fulfill the mitzvah of “bal tashchit,” the prohibition against destruction and waste, and use the week of Chanukah to rededicate our efforts to go green. Many of us exchange gifts or gelt during Chanukah. Perhaps a week striving for green, renewable energy would be giving a gift to the earth for the sake of future generations.
Amanda Koehn of the Cleveland Jewish News suggests eight ways to go green during Chanukah:
- Buy a composter for yourself and as a gift. It is more environmentally friendly than recycling and can connect Chanukah scraps with fertilizers for Tu B’shevat trees.
- Donate to a local environmental nonprofit fighting for the environment.
- Prepare a vegan meal for your family.
- Buy yourself or someone else a bike for short commutes and exercise.
- Say “NO!” to straws, turn off lights when not using them, lower the thermostat, and wear an ugly holiday sweater.
- Stay local for your next vacation.
- Buy local and save on the transportation impact while supporting local business.
- Invest in solar or wind. You can buy into renewable sources from many power vendors.
One of the special prayers recited over Chanukah is Al Hanissim, which speaks to the true miraculous deeds and saving acts that brought victory to the Maccabees. They were a small band of disruptive visionaries who changed history and saved Jewish civilization. We all can step up to fight for light in our time and for the future. Remember, the most important miracle of renewable energy symbolized by the Chanukah candles is the energy of human agency, resilience, optimism, and creativity fueled by meaningful mission.