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Hanukkah — lighting a new kind of candle

The Hasmonean wars marked the first time in history that people were willing to die for their beliefs

The holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the revolt, wars and victory of the Hasmoneans against Greece. Hanukkah is not the only holiday instituted to commemorate victories in the Jewish wars during the Second Temple period. But, while all the other days have been forgotten, the holiday of Hanukkah has remained. Furthermore, the Rabbis tell us that even if all other holidays were to disappear, Hanukkah will never be abolished.

There are other explanations, historical accounts and stories about the miracles of Hanukkah but – as explained clearly in the special Hanukkah prayers that have been embedded in Jewish liturgy from ancient times — these victories are the main reason for the holiday.

The victories themselves are not the distinctive feature of Hanukkah; rather, it was the very nature of these wars that make the holiday so unique. Until the Hasmoneans, all wars were intrinsically simple affairs: people went to war because of real or imaginary threats, out of greed for somebody else’s possessions, or due to personal and national desires for glory. This aspect of war has not changed very much: to date, most of the wars in the world – be they aggressive or defensive – erupt because of these political and economic factors.

The Hasmonean wars were the first ideological wars in history. They were fought because the Jewish people rejected foreign ideology and were willing to march into many bitter battles in order to maintain their ideological independence. Of course, national and economic elements were intermingled, but they were secondary to the main drive that created this revolt and kept the wars going. However, the notion that a people’s attachment to their religion is not merely sentimental – that religion and lifestyle are important enough to fight and die for – was something completely unknown before.

On a deeper level, the importance of the Hasmonean wars is not only the fact that they introduced a “new reason” for fighting. It is that they triggered a basic change in people’s perspective. From then on, religion and belief were no longer a mere matter of habit and convenience. They became a vital component of life. These wars were a symptom of a more profound change – namely, a change in the perception of what is important and what is not. If people now go to war in order to protect or disseminate their faith, it means that faith has become a central motivation in people’s lives. If people are willing to die for their religion, it means that they are more than ready to live for it.

It may seem that this is all a matter of the past, but I assert that the message of Hanukkah is still just as pertinent today. In many parts of the world, war – as well as life – has reverted to the most basic corporeal needs. In the present time, there seems to be a pandemic deluge: the world is shaking, the future is uncertain. At such times, it is important to devote a great amount of thinking to the fundamental drives of society. A tsunami or a volcanic eruption cause changes in the environment. After a deluge, there is an even more profound change. Now is the time for re-thinking and re-assessing the values that have been governing our society.

Times like ours create at least the possibility for finding new paradigms for society. The easy way out – which the powerful elements of our time uphold and preach – is to keep the old order as it was and make some minor corrections as the need arises: providing funds for big banks or major corporations in trouble, or even assisting some of the unfortunate who were caught in the deluge. Such changes and amendments may keep things in place for a while, but what we have here is an all-embracing earthquake. Putting plaster on cracked walls may keep a building from collapsing for some time, but for thorough reparation, one must penetrate the surface and re-examine the foundations.

In the past and present, the overwhelming enveloping attitude has been that only two things really count: money and individual advancement. It seems that now, these two elements have cracked to such an extent that mere whitewashing will not help. The time has therefore come for us to begin thinking in altogether different terms. The notions of good and evil should replace those of legal and illegal – not only from the moral point of view, but also from the practical one. The common good and the re-structuring and rebuilding of notions such as family and community should push aside the overwhelming desire for individual success.

This revision should also include giving much more room to the “vertical” relationship – namely, that between man and Heaven, rather than to the “horizontal” one which has been governing the lives of many individuals for quite some time. These ideas are not entirely new. One may say that in some way, the Hasmonean wars were the death signals of pagan society, which since then has been replaced by other types of ideology. The events of our time may also help demolish the nouveau-pagan western-style society, and instill in it values of right and wrong instead of feasibility and practicality. Perhaps now, as was the case at the time of Hanukkah, the time has come for lighting a new kind of candle.

About the Author
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the founder of Shefa and The Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications. In 2012 he completed his monumental, 45 volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. The Steinsaltz Talmud has been translated into 29 volumes in French and 5 volumes in Russian. In 2012, the first volume of the “Koren Talmud Bavli” in English with Rabbi Steinsaltz's commentary was published. Adin Steinsaltz was awared the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, for his educational achievements in opening the Talmud and was was among the first recipients of the Israeli Presidential Award of Distinction, for his contribution to Israeli society and its standing in the world. In 2012, Rabbi Steinsaltz received a National Jewish Book Award for the English Koren Talmud Bavli from the Jewish Book Council (USA). He was also the recipient of the French Order of Arts and Literature.
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