By Stephen Hoffman
This year we marked the start of Hanukkah (Chanukah) on Sunday 2nd December when the Jewish community worldwide lit the first sacred of eight sacred lights. Each day over this holiday period we light a new candle/lamp and for this reason, Hanukkah is often referred to as the festival of lights. As you can imagine, it comes as no surprise that these holy days are full of incredible joy, celebration and happiness!
But what is Hanukkah you may ask? Why do we light these candles/lamps and how is it important – or even relatable – for those outside of the Jewish community? Well Hanukkah is all about celebrating one of the greatest miracles in Jewish history. For the Jewish community it’s so great, it even beats Leicester City winning the Premier League!
But jokes aside, the lessons of this story are one’s that we can all relate to – whatever our faith or non-faith background. So read on to find out why!
Hanukkah: What’s it all about?
The story of Hanukkah starts with persecution against the Jews, but there’s thankfully a happy ending!
Over 2,500 years ago, the Syrian king, King Antiochus IV – like many leaders before him – had taken a dislike to the Jewish people. In fact, he not only disliked Jews but even sought to eliminate the Jewish religion by ordering all the Jewish people to bow down and pray to Greek gods. This of course was an order to abandon Jewish customs. There was no question of free will as if you refused, you faced death! Without doubt, this was a clear, deliberate attack on the Jewish community, as one of the sacred Ten Commandments expressly forbids Jews from worshipping false statues and idols.
Troubled times therefore lay ahead for the Jewish community but then a small group of people came to the rescue! This group – who went by the name of the Maccabees – refused to give up on their faith and to this day still disprove the antisemitic lie that Jewish people are emotionally and physically weak.
Despite being overpowered by their Greek counterparts who had more people, more arms and more money, after a three-year rebellion, the Maccabees were able to recapture the temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians. This however came at a great cost as the holiest site for Judaism – the temple of Jerusalem – was all but destroyed as a result.
As the holiest site in Judaism, the Jews looked to clean and rebuild the temple, rededicating it to God in all His glory. The most important way they could show their faith to God was by the lighting of the menorah (lamp) – a symbol of God’s presence which you’ll find in synagogues across the globe today. However, whilst there was only enough oil to last one day, the oil miraculously lasted eight days!
It’s this miracle that we remember each year during Hanukkah by lighting one candle on the hanukiah (an eight-stemmed candelabrum) each day (and by eating fried food such as doughnuts!). This is our crucial reminder of how God protected the Jewish people when all hope seemed lost.
Looking ahead: What can we learn?
Two and a half thousand years later, festivals like Hanukkah may seem irrelevant to the modern day, but if you look at the story carefully, there are some very important messages which we can all learn. And of course, what better way than to find a modern-day tune to sing the message loudly and clearly? Take a look and listen!
1. Never give up!
To paraphrase the infamous Rick Astley song: never give up! Things may look bleak but good times do lie ahead! As someone who has fought depression all of their life, one of the ways I have been able to get through difficult times is to remind myself that by just living, I am winning. Likewise, being able to use cutlery and tie a tie up despite having dyspraxia, have showed me how we’re all able to work through difficult times and the importance of not giving up!
And this is where Hanukkah comes in. The lights of Hanukkah show how that even in dark times, there is hope. We’re reminded of the strength of the human spirit under extreme duress. So think about the challenges that you or your family have faced throughout your life and how you’ve overcome them. Remember that we often find out about how strong we are in the darkest of moments. As they say: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
2. Keep the faith
As George Michael tells us: have faith! However this may be – towards God, within a specific religious/spiritual tradition or even of no (specific) faith group at all – holding a key set of values really does help guide us in our life. It helps build resilience, a sense of perseverance and inner peace. For the Maccabees, their inner strength came from their faith in Judaism and God.
Their faith was their motivating force – it gave their life a purpose, which helped them to fight for their beliefs. It was through refusing to give up their faith that Judaism was able to survive trying times. As a community, we’ve faced repeated persecution but have never been defeated. So, however you express your faith or your beliefs, your core values can – and often do – give real meaning to your life and offer something worth striving for.
3. Freedom is fundamental
As this classic Queen anthem reminds us: we all want to break free from hardship, injustice and pain. Freedom from oppression and persecution, freedom to practice your religion or indeed to not practice any religion, freedom to enjoy the love of your family, freedom to live in peace away from the threat of violence, freedom to express yourself, write, speak and represent yourself in the way you wish – these are the fundamental rights we all want, deserve and are entitled to as human beings!
During an era of persecution, the Maccabees ensured that Jewish people would be able to freely celebrate the beauty of the Jewish religion for centuries to come. They showed how freedom of religion and belief crucially is the right of each and every individual. In this way, the message of Hanukkah is a message that’s worth remembering for everyone!
4. The world is wonderful
We may often feel overwhelmed by the many constant negatives around us – which more often than not appear seemingly impossible (or at least incredibly challenging!) to overcome/face. Just by switching on the TV for example, we can see war, conflict, famine, the effects of natural disasters and so much more. In such a climate – whilst striving hard to not be bought down by negatives– it’s also important to reflect on the positive.
Think of the beauty of the sky, the peaceful rustling of the trees and the lush green grass. Louis Armstrong was definitely right when he said what a wonderful world – no matter how ugly it may seem at times. Indeed, something as beautiful as a candle and the soft light it gives is such a beautiful reminder of the simple, natural, innate beauty of the world. So light a candle, reflect, write down and say out loud everything that you’re are thankful for and repeat these positive thoughts. Remember: there is beauty out there so learn to look for it – starting off with the little things.
5. Be proud of who you are!
We are all beautiful individual souls and should never feel forced through fear to hide our identity in any way. During the time of King Antiochus IV, the easiest path for the Maccabees would have been to renounce their Jewish identity but they refused and came out victorious!
So, whatever great qualities make up your identity – don’t give up on them! Be proud of your identity, whilst ignoring those who seek to belittle what makes you beautiful inside and outside. Ignore the haters and learn to love yourself! Your identity is what makes you the best version of yourself and we should all accept everyone for who they are – whatever their religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender or sexuality. As Christina Aguilera sings: you are beautiful – no matter what they say.
So, now that we’re half-way through Hanukkah, reflect on the lights of Hanukkah and continue to strive for acceptance, for freedom and for positivity all round. Happy Hanukkah! Chanukah Sameach!
Feature image: Freepik