It is difficult, if not impossible, to walk into a store at this time of year without being subjected to mind-numbing Christmas Musack playing in the background, just soft enough that you can speak over it, but also just loud enough that you can’t help but hear it. I assume that the intention is to put shoppers in the “Christmas spirit,” and make them spend more. I doubt that it has any positive effect in that regard. The message, though, comes through loud and clear in ways both liminal and subliminal: “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute.”
At the risk of being a holiday season curmudgeon, I would like to suggest that what we Jews actually need is a little Chanukah. And the world would benefit from that message, too.
I certainly don’t begrudge my Christian friends and neighbors their right to a joyous Christmas. In matter of fact, I wish them a meaningful Christmas with a full heart. As a practicing Jew, I have always thought that, had I been raised as a believing Christian, Christmas would be a supremely important time of year for me. After all, what could possibly be a source of greater joy and spiritual nourishment for a believing Christian than the birth of a savior? With all of the beautiful legends and traditions that have grown up around the holiday, and so much magnificent music (not the Musack from the stores), it should, indeed, be a time of peace and joy, and spiritual serenity.
As a Jew, and as a rabbi, I share the dismay of many that Christmas has become so mercilessly commercialized, and that the pressures generated by what has developed into an orgy of gift-giving have, of course, permeated the culture of Chanukah, which was never about giving gifts.
Exactly how Chanukah came to be the festival that it is today, how its current practice relates to the Maccabean uprising against Antiochus’ forces, the relentless Hellenizing pressures of ancient Greece and the miracle of the oil, is a subject of considerable scholarly debate. I’ve always thought it fascinating that the prophetic portion chanted on the Shabbat of Chanukah, from the prophet Zachariah, insists that military might is not what wins the day, but rather the spirit of God: “…Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord.” A strange choice of selections, don’t you think, for a holiday that celebrates a military victory? Clearly, at its formative stage, not everyone was on exactly the same page when it came to the message of Chanukah!
But this year, more than in recent memory, I find myself feeling that we really do need to summon the spirit of Chanukah and embrace it anew. The forces arrayed against our people have not seemed quite so hostile and overwhelming in many years. Israel is increasingly portrayed as a pariah nation, and the countries of Europe seem to be tripping over each other in a concerted effort to isolate her and punish her, either literally taking her products off their shelves, or by rushing to affirm Palestinian statehood without care for Israel’s legitimate security concerns and diplomatic process.
The Jewish communities of many of Europe’s countries, particularly France and Belgium, have found themselves virtually under siege, and made, at best, to feel unwelcome. At worst, they have been made to feel unsafe. Synagogues and Jewish Centers have been attacked, armed guards have become a necessity on Shabbat and Holidays and Jews have been harassed on the street. As we close in on seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, even the most optimistic among us cannot help but feel that the world has taken a major step backwards in relating positively to Jews and Judaism. There is more than a little darkness all around us …
Chanukah could not come at a better time.
When we feel like we’re fighting a losing battle against overwhelming odds, Chanukah reminds us that we are not the first, nor will we be the last. Despair is not an option! Surely the Maccabees had no realistic reason to believe that they could prevail against the far superior forces of their enemy, but they fought their fight anyway. The ancient rabbis who authored the liturgical additions for Chanukah made it clear that from their perspective, whatever success the Maccabees enjoyed owed to God’s providence, not their own military prowess. Others find in the courage of the Maccabees the inspiration for today’s Israel Defense Forces, which know a thing or two about facing almost absurd odds and regularly surmounting them.
It doesn’t much matter whether one celebrates the military victory, or the spiritual dimension of the Hasmonean triumph over the Greeks. What matters is remembering this fundamental message: What happened then should inform, and must inform, how we respond to today’s challenges. We dare not lose our belief in ourselves, and in our ability to create a better future. Despair is not an option!
Despair is not an option … a major message for a minor festival! To all of you, a Chag Urim Sameach!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.