Miracles, Then and Now: Understanding the Message Behind Hanukkah

Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig

 It started in a small town now considered a bedroom city to Jerusalem. In the post-Alexander the Great era, Greek culture and customs had grown strong in the land of Israel, and assimilation was prevalent in all aspects of life. The gymnasium was more popular than the Yeshiva. Popular names had Greek, not Hebrew, origins. And men had embraced Greek culture and life so deeply that they would undergo surgical procedures to reverse their circumcisions.

When the Greek Assyrians became an occupying force in Israel, tension increased between the Hellenists, those who abandoned their Judaism for Greek life, and the Jews who had not. As we know from the Hanukkah story,when the Greek occupiers demanded that a pig be slaughtered in a ritual sacrifice, Mattathias, a Jewish priest in Modi’in, stepped forward and killed the men who were willing to do so. What followed was the revolt of the Maccabees. Judah — Mattathias’ son and the leader of the Maccabees — and his followers fought to reclaim Jewish independence from the Greeks and to turn people from their abandonment of Judaism. Their victory culminated with the rededication of the Holy Temple, and the festival holiday known as Hanukkah. (“Hanukkah,” which means “dedication” in Hebrew, also shares the same root as the Hebrew word for “education.”)

During Hanukkah, we celebrate by telling the story of how a small vile of oil used to light the menorah lasted eight days when it contained enough oil to last only one. The message, implicit to those who know the history, is that a small band loyal to Judaism was able to outlast the power of the great Greek army and assimilation.

Judaism still struggles with the reality of assimilation. As we have become more accepted and integrated into American cultural life — with all its wonders and advantages — our Jewish knowledge, practice, and identity have suffered.

Hanukkah, I believe, is not just a celebration of the miracle of long ago, but it is a reason for us to celebrate the miracle of modern Judaism today. Think about it. Universities operate robust departments of Jewish studies. With all the challenges of modern life, we still have large, engaged Jewish congregations that play vital roles in their communities. Look at our own Congregation as an example. Last month, we gathered for Sunday Stuffing. There, we ensured that every Abram Simon Elementary School family would have the ingredients to make a festive Thanksgiving meal, we prepared casseroles, and we packaged Hunger Project meals that would feed thousands more. This month, we will host “Winter Warmth” and open our doors to homeless and vulnerable people served by Friendship Place. Every attendee will get a hot meal and the opportunity to select warm clothing that will help keep them warm during the cold winter months. On MLK Day of Service in January, Jews, Christians, Muslims, believers, and non-believers will gather at Temple to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the least among us. And of course, there is Mitzvah Day, our foundation program that launched so many other opportunities for tikkun olam. Every day, we connect to our Judaism and teach our community by living the prophetic values of our faith.

But most impressive to me is how we fulfill our mission to educate our WHC students who, at the completion of their Religious and Upper School education, are informed and engaged Jews. When you consider the facts, this is indeed a modern day miracle created by our educators! There are just 24 sessions of Religious School each year. During each session, students have just one hour of Judaic studies. This means we have only 24 hours — one full day — every year to educate a Jewish child to be Jewish. Now, consider the child who begins their religious educational journey with us in kindergarten and continues through their senior year in high school. When they graduate, all the hours they spent learning at WHC add up to only 13 days. That’s less than two weeks to give a child a Jewish education! We do supplement our Religious School classroom curriculum with a plethora of informal educational opportunities, including our dynamic youth groups, retreats, and special programs, but the amount of time can’t compare to a child’s secular education, where every year they receive, on average, nearly 1,200 hours — 180 days — of instruction. If we want to ensure that our WHC students go on to live active, engaged, vibrant Jewish lives, then every opportunity matters.

We are about to launch one such opportunity for our high school students. It’s a program called “READY: Reform Engaged Articulate Determined Youth,” which will prepare our young people for realities they may face on their high school and college campuses, including challenges to their Jewish values. We will not coach students on what to believe; rather, we will make sure that they feel confident to stand up for what they do believe and will help them fill any lacuna in their Jewish education.

This and every Hanukkah, we must all rededicate ourselves to the values and opportunities that sustain our Judaism. I am proud of all we have done for 167 years to keep the flame lit so long ago by the Maccabees alive and burning, not only in the sacred Temple but even more, in the hearts and minds of the next generation. This is the miracle of Washington Hebrew Congregation, and I hope you will celebrate its success and secure its future with me!