2018-12-05 / Religion Column

The miracle of the oil and the battle against tyranny

RABBI LARRY SERNOVITZ
Nafshenu, Cherry Hill

Mai Chanukah? The Talmud (Shabbat 21b:10) asks, “What is Chanukah?” In general, there is not a whole lot written in the Talmud about Chanukah. From the Talmud, we understand that Chanukah is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, commemorating the time when the Jewish community defeated the Greeks who had desecrated the Temple and persecuted our people. As we teach, once we were victorious in battle, we found a single cruse of oil to rekindle the candles and rededicate the Temple. The oil was only enough to last one night, but it lasted eight nights, and that is why we have eight nights of Chanukah. “A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days. The following year the Sages fixed those days, making them holidays for praise and thanksgiving.”

Mai Chanukah? The question here wasn’t really, “What was Chanukah?” Rather, it was what is the message we want to pass down from generation to generation? How did this moment in our story shape who we are as a people? Many know about the miracle of the oil. The miracle is important and reminds us to always have hope, an eternal value for the Jewish people. This is especially important to teach our children. But, the battle between the Greeks and the Jews is more nuanced and begs us to understand this more in our day and age. We are Post Pittsburgh, a time when once again “our Temple” was desecrated and splattered with Jewish blood, and anti-Semitism and discrimination is on the rise, against us and other vulnerable groups.

The Mishnah Torah (Scroll of Esther and Chanukah 3:1-3) teaches us that, “When the Greeks ruled during the Second Temple period, they oppressed Israel with harsh decrees. They banned their religion and did not allow them to be engaged in Torah and Mitzvot. They also robbed their wealth and invaded their daughters and they entered the shrine and raised havoc defiling all that was pure. And Israel suffered greatly from them until the God of our fathers had mercy and saved us from them.” The Jewish community was systematically beaten down and humiliated by the ruling Greeks. They sought to dehumanize us, and our way of life was attacked. We suffered greatly at the hands of an oppressive government. But, this is not new to the Jewish community. From the destruction of the Temples, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the pogroms and the Holocaust, and now to Europe and Pittsburgh.

But, there is a bigger lesson that we must learn. When one group is dehumanized, we are all victims. From Jews, to Muslims, to women, to the LGBTQ community, to the African American Community, to the working poor, along with the immigrants who are trying to seek asylum from the hands of those who seek to do exactly that the Greeks and others did to us. When we turn our backs on the most vulnerable in society, we turn our backs on our own history of persecution. After Pittsburgh, we must use the relationships we have formed to seek justice for all, not just fight for our own survival. This is the age-old battle of the universal vs. the particular. In the end, as Pastor Martin Niemoller once wrote, “then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”

May this season remind us of the blessing of the light and the mandate to pursue justice for all.

Chag Chanukah Sameach.

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