It’s that time of year again — eight crazy nights as Adam Sandler calls it; yes, the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is here once again. Traditionally the holiday commemorates the survival of Judaism and the Jewish peoples in the face of tremendous opposition. The story of Hanukkah begins with a Greek general known as Alexander the Great, who conquered lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Alexander, as well as leaders who came after him, made sure to Hellenize all who became their subjects.
In Judea, which was all that remained of the ancient kingdom of Israel, many Jews rejected this concept and continued living and worshipping in Jewish ways. There came a time when a king named Antiochus of Syria was placed as the governor of Judea, and it was he who decided to destroy the Jewish religion. He defiled the Holy Temple, setting up Greek idols around the altar and ordered all Jews to worship Greek gods.
In the little town of Modi ‘in an old priest named Matityahu refused to worship the Greek gods. Since his defiance put him in danger, he fled to the mountains with his five sons. And with the war cry “Let all who want to obey the Torah and keep God’s commandments follow me,” he collected a band of brave Jews who became an army in hiding. When Matityahu passed, his son Judah took his place and became the leader of the band. For three years, the Maccabees fought on, trapping the Syrians in narrow mountain passes, eventually driving them out of Jerusalem as the recaptured the Israelite capital.
Judah and his triumphant army continued on and marched to the Holy Temple whereupon they ripped down all of the Greek statues and icons that were used for Greek worship. They cleansed the Temple thus rededicating it to Jewish worship and replaced all of its holy objects, bringing back to the Temple the Torah as well.
As legend tells it, all of this Temple work was accomplished to the light of a menorah that was fueled by a little canister of oil, which was found in the Temple. Although there was hardly enough oil for one day’s worth of light, the small amount that was found miraculously lasted eight days and nights. Like the spirit of the Maccabees, the light did not once go out. The story of Hanukkah is a beautiful tale of the success of a small and beleaguered people, who hang on through steadfast loyalty to its Torah and way of life.
As we lit the first candle this past Sunday night, I like to think of all of us as that tiny flame that will emanate from our symbolic menorah.
Rabbi Paul Hoffman is the spiritual leader of the South Shore Jewish Center, in Island Park.