The lights of Chanukah offer us moments of warmth and brightness as the daylight hours grow shorter. This ritual of kindling the Chanukiah/Menorah links Jewish practice to all other “festivals of light” at this time of year.
What makes Chanukah unique is its story of a people whose practices were, at first encouraged, then begrudgingly accepted and, ultimately, forbidden by their rulers. A recent archaeological discovery bears a declaration by the Syrian Greek Ruler Seleucus IV that overseers would be appointed over the provinces of their empire, including Judea. Their new powers included the right of the Syrian-Greek empire to assume full authority over the treasury of any religious entity in their realm, including the Temple in Jerusalem. The successor of Seleucus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, is the familiar Antiochus of the Chanukah story, who did, in fact, take over the Temple treasury, choose a high priest (against Jewish practice), turn the Temple into a house of worship to Zeus, and forbid the practice of Judaism under penalty of death. The struggle to take back the Temple and regain the right to religious freedom, led by the Maccabees, is still the reason that we light the Chanukah candles every year.
Our observance of Chanukah reminds us how fortunate we are to live in a country that grants us religious freedom. No government authority can tell us that we cannot join together, build a Temple/synagogue or practice Judaism. Our ongoing support of Casa de Peregrinos and the El Caldito Soup Kitchen and Beth-El Temple Youth’s “Turkeys from Temple Teens” campaign demonstrates how we can use our religious freedom to bring benefit to the greater community. My participation in a monthly clergy breakfast, the New Mexico State University Interfaith Council, Communities in Action and Faith (CAFé’), and the board of the local Peace Camp provides avenues for sharing Jewish perspectives and values with our neighbors.
As a congregation, there are lights that we can light for each other and for the human family. Our Shabbat worship offers us a chance to be together as members of all ages, uniting our voices in prayer and song. When we gather for worship, we have the opportunity to inspire each other and deepen our feeling of connection with all of creation and with the Creator of all. Our participation at all types of Temple events is a gift that enlivens the Temple building and generates a spirit of camaraderie and caring. Joining any opportunity for discussion gives us a chance to enlighten each other in wisdom and insight. Sharing our talents and strengths, whether they are culinary, musical, intellectual, cultural or spiritual, is a way in which our “lights” can brighten our congregation throughout the year. Joining together as members of Temple Beth-El to support local, national and international agencies and organizations that help people in need is another way of giving light to others who need more hope in their lives.
Without our presence, our hands, and our hearts, a Chanukiah would remain on a shelf, abandoned, lonely, and dark. When we light the menorah, we are like modern-day Maccabees, seeking to sustain our heritage and to work for freedom for all humankind. May these be the lights we share during Chanukah and throughout the year!