It isn’t necessary to purge your home of all leavening agents in a time and labor intensive process, to build a hut whose roof enables you to see through to the stars to dwell in for eight days or to stay up all night (admittedly a ritual popularized in an era when caffeine became more widely available) poring over sacred texts. Hanukkah is the simplest of holidays. The only demand it makes on those observing it is to display a daily increasing number of candles in a public fashion so that the largest number of observers possible can partake of the glow of its light.
In some ways it seems trivial since it doesn’t require planning and shopping, cleaning and preparing. We don’t need an explanation to a teacher or boss of why there is yet another holiday in a narrowly constricted time period that coincides with a crucial time at work or school. In some ways the ease of observance makes it seem that Hanukkah is so minor as to be insignificant. In terms of the overall Jewish calendar of course this is true. Hanukkah is a post-biblical holiday, one that does not even have a canonized place in our Jewish Scriptures since the book of Maccabees, while part of some Christian Bibles, was not valued so highly to merit placement inside the 24 books chosen to be part of the Holy Scriptures of the Jews.
In terms of the Jewish calendar, there are the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, as I described above, whose rituals surround the seasons of the agricultural cycle and pilgrimage to the Temple when it was standing. These are all described in the Torah along with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known in Hebrew as the Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe, a time when Jews focus on improving our deeds so we can be judged favorably for a positive year. Hanukkah, historically later and not mandated by the more binding nature of holidays described in the Bible, takes a back seat to these other observances.
This year, Hanukkah actually has a larger significance than other holidays, simple as it is . For me, a member of New Light Congregation whose husband was in the building on October 27, even this small act is complicated. Lighting a menorah means that I am identifying my home publicly as a Jewish home; if there is a hater out there, that individual now knows where I live. It feels like an act of defiance and bravery to simply kindle a light. Rabbi Francine Green Roston of Whitefish, Montana taught me that although lighting a candle may seem a small thing, in fact the tiny light can illuminate a much larger area. Rabbi Roston was visiting to help out at New Light; she and her Montana community have faced difficult anti-Semitic threats in her community so hearing her say this was particularly striking.
When Jewish lives are threatened, even the small act of proclaiming our Jewishness and what we stand for has a larger meaning. Today any act of declaring Jewishness means we must ask ourselves, ‘am I now a target for anti-Semitic hatred?’ Jews around the world are asking ourselves that this Hanukkah in ways we may not have, or at least I personally did not before October 27.
One of the few times the adjective “Hebrew” is used in the Torah is in the liturgical reading read every year on the Sabbath of Hanukkah, Genesis 41:1- 44:17. In it, Joseph enters the palace of Pharoah for the first time and is called a “Hebrew lad”(Genesis 41: 11). Everyone in the palace knows Joseph’s Hebrew origins, yet when his brothers come to see him they are told to eat separately from Joseph because “the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.”(43:32)
I believe the brothers who had no empathy for the suffering of Joseph in the pit (37:24) or for that of Jacob who believed his son dead, were the ones acting Egyptian. Only when they behave with empathy as Judah finally does when he speaks of having empathy for his father and his sufferings(Genesis 44:34) can the brothers be seen as Hebrews.
This year, anyone lighting a menorah is a person willing to perhaps be a target of hate, but also a person who is proclaiming belief in the forces of light, in the ability to bring more and yet more light into the world by increasing the number of candles we light each day of the holiday, proving that we believe we must increase kindness and empathy in the world.
Hanukkah is a holiday that is relatively easy to observe but deeply meaningful specifically because of its simplicity. Anyone willing to stand up and be counted as a Jew or an ally is a significant win for the forces of kindness and goodness. That is sufficient in a time when Jews everywhere are under threat, that many others are willing to stand by our side and be connected to us, to say that we are all neighbors here in America.