Monday, December 22, 2008

Hannukah: Celebrating Jewish Identity

Last night, Jews all over the world lit the first candle on the Menorah, and upon singing the blessings, ushered in Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. The word Hannukah comes from the phrase Hannukat ha-Bayit, which means Dedication of the House. On Hannukah, Jews remember the war with Antiochus the Tyrant, who called himself Epiphanes--"god made manifest." When the war was over, the victorious Maccabees held an eight-day celebration to rededicate the Holy Temple to the service of the Eternal One, G-d of Israel.

Here at Sedillo, as the Solstice sunset lit a fiery sky, we also began the preparations for Hannukah.

This first night, we celebrated with friends in Edgewood. They made a roast and the obligatory latkes, the potato pancakes, fried in oil, to remind us of the miracle of the oil--the miracle of Hannukah. The story goes that when the war was finished, the Maccabees came to the Temple in Jerusalem, to purify it from the depredations of the Syrian Greeks, and dedicate it (khannuk) once again to the service of the Eternal. They found only one small cruz of oil that bore the seal of the high priest, and thus was fit to light the great Menorah. The oil was not enough to keep the Menorah lit for the seven days it would take to purify more oil for the Rededication of the House. But they lit the great seven-branched lamp anyway, and TAMO (then a miracle occured, as the Boychick says) and the lamp burned for eight days.

The oil in the story represents the burning flame of identity within each Jew, passed on from generation to generation, from individual to individual. This is the fire of Torah, burning white fire upon black fire; that covenant that we mark upon the bodies of our sons, and that burns within, transforming our hearts.

Each year, as our children light the candles, the light growing from day to day, we remember Judah the Maccabee, son of Mattayahu the Priest of Modi'in. When Antiochus the Tyrant decreed that all the conquered peoples of his empire must lose their unique identities in order to create a false unity in service to the king, there were many Judeans who went along for the sake of peace, and to consolidate their own wealth and power. But when Antiochus decreed that to bring a son into the covenant by the ritual of B'rit Milah (circumcision), that to teach and study Torah, that to pray as a Jew, that these were all capital crimes, Judah and his brothers stood up and said that they would rather die fighting to be Jews than to live on their knees, subject to the whims of a tyrant.

The covenant of Torah is a Covenant of Law. The Law is supreme over all human beings, and even a king is subject to it. That Antiochus put himself above the Law by calling himself "Epiphanes" made him, in the eyes of the Maccabees, a tyrant and a fool. Thus they called him "Antiochus Epimanes" -- Antiochus the Fool.

The miracle of Hannukah is the miracle of passing the flame of our identity, the knowledge of who we are. We are am k'shei oref -- that 'stiff-necked people' that bows before no man because we understand that no human being is above the Law. In every generation, we have chosen to live the covenant, we have chosen for ourselves and for our children, so that we and they might have the fullness of life and freedom. And too often, we have paid for our freedom with our lives, for that stubborn flame of identity that burns within will allow us to accept no human being as a god to rule us.

To be a Jew is to accept no substitute for freedom. Our story began with our liberation from slavery; slavery of the soul and the mind, as well as of the body. Our story continues as we pass down that stubborn insistence that human beings must be free, that they must be able to choose good from evil, and the Law declares that no one else may choose it for them; that each one is responsible for his own choice.

It may be that in the coming days, we will be required to remember who we are once again, and to stand up for our freedom to live under the Law, bowing to no tyrant. Thus, each year at Hannukah, we rededicate that flame of identity that burns within us. And as we watch our children ignite the fire, candle by candle, we see each one catch flame, the light growing with each passing day of dedication.
For as Zechariah admonishes us, it is:
"Not by might,
and not by power,
but by spirit alone,
says the Eternal."

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