After the destruction of the Second Temple, many rabbis were convinced that Hanukkah should be abolished. After all, it celebrated the rededication of the Temple. And the Temple was no more. It had been destroyed by the Romans under Titus. Without a Temple, what was there left to celebrate?
The Talmud tells us that in at least one town, Lod, Hanukkah was abolished. Yet eventually the other view prevailed, which is why we celebrate Hanukkah to this day.
Why? Because, though the Temple was destroyed, Jewish hope was not destroyed. We may have lost the building but we still had the story, and the memory, and the light. And what had happened once, in the days of the Maccabees, could happen again. And so we continue to celebrate this “Festival of Lights” which has evolved into a significant holiday for many Jews.
However, while we eat latkes, give gifts and light candles, let us not forget that Hanukkah has several universal messages: First, we must never take religious freedom for granted. We’re blessed in America. Religion flourishes here as in few other countries. It has been painful for me to hear the ugly and slanderous talk about “the other” these past few months. We should remember that our freedom demands the need to ensure mutual respect and the principle of live and let live for others. Not everyone is as lucky as we are.
In despotic countries such as North Korea, freedom of religion is non-existent. And in some countries in the Muslim world, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, freedom of religion is severely restricted for non-Muslims.
Perhaps on a personal level the most significant aspect of the most important feature of Hanukkah—the Hanukkah candles—is represented by the increase in the number of candles from day to day. The lighting of the candles is progressive; that is, we proceed from least to most. We light one candle on the first night, the second night two candles, the third night three candles, and so on until the eighth night, when the hanukkiah is ablaze with all eight candles. This represents growth, increase and progress. It was the House of Hillel which legalized this order when it said that the number of candles is to be increased each night, because one must rise, increase or progress in holiness.
Rabbi Norman Lamm writes, “The light of the progressive candles is, therefore, for us, an enlightening commentary on what Jewish life should be. They inspire us to better behavior, challenge us to greater deeds, and urge us on to new and broader horizons, with that ever-valid commandment, ‘Rise in holiness.’”
This holiday season, as we Americans celebrate our own religious freedom and harmony, let’s not forget those still struggling for theirs and the charge to each of us to rise in holiness.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.