Can you imagine just how different our most beloved holiday might be if, instead of lighting candles for eight nights, we, say…ate bread for eight nights? Or burned eight nights of incense? It may seem like a bizarre hypothetical exercise, but actually, the Golden Menorah upon which the miracle of Hanukkah occurred stood in the same part of the Temple sanctuary as the Shulchan, a Golden table that held twelve loaves of bread, and the Mizbeach HaZahav, the golden incense altar. So really, had the the miracle of Hanukkah occurred during a different part of the Temple service, our beautiful Festival of Lights might have been the Festival of Loaves or the Festival of Scents! So what is the significance of the Hanukkiah, the Menorah, and what can we learn from the fact that the miracle specifically centered around the lights of the Temple service?
In the word of the Holy Kabbalist Rav Moshe Alshich, “The Menorah symbolizes Man who is like a lamp, ready to give light with the help of the Lord, through Torah and good works.” In other words, the man-sized, seven branched Golden candelabra that stood in the Holy Temple captures the same indomitable Jewish spirit that our ancestors showed in the face of religious persecution. It was with this spirit that the Maccabees took up arms when the Assyrian-Greek King, Antiochus, abolished fundamental Jewish practices such as the observance of Shabbat and Jewish Holidays, refusing to give up that part of us that feeds our Jewish souls and allows us to shine. It was with this spirit that they re-entered the defiled Holy Temple in Jerusalem and set to work restoring the daily service that was the beating heart of our ancient Jewish ancestors. And it was with this spirit that they faithfully filled the golden Menorah with the last jar of pure olive oil, refusing to balk at the apparent paucity of their spiritual resources.
As we light the Hannukah candles let’s take a moment to reflect on how we can ignite our own indomitable Jewish spirit this year. It may seem at times as though our Jewish practice has lapsed and that our spiritual resources are dwindling; but if the Hanukkah story has something to teach us it is that when we rededicate our hearts to serving G-d the results will be nothing short of miraculous.
Rabbi Amittai Steindler is the Jewish Studies Director and Educator at Irvine Hebrew Day School.