Faith Matters: Understanding a symbol of faith: The story behind the Chanukah menorah
|Published: 12-01-2023 11:46 AM
‘In the days of Matisyahu,” the prayer begins, “the wicked kingdom of the Hellenists overtook the Jewish people, so as to cause them to forget the Torah and disregard Your [G-d’s] will.”
Get your candles out everyone, it’s time for Chanukah. And for the first time this year, Greenfield joins other communities like Amherst, Keene and Brattleboro in having a menorah in the town square.
If you only know a little bit about Chanukah, it’s probably something like: The Jews had their temple ransacked by the Greeks. After the dust cleared, they went back to light their menorah and found that there was only enough oil left to burn for one day, even though a new shipment was eight days away. But a miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight days, keeping a continuous flame until new oil could be obtained — thus, the eight days of Chanukah.
The good news is: what you thought you knew is accurate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s now been two months since the latest war started in Israel, and I thank G-d every day that I live in America. I felt myself sinking with dread when I first heard about it, for many reasons — because of the inevitable loss of innocent lives; because of the deep divisions I knew it would create (or re-create) within the Jewish community; and because I knew, in that moment, that I would be facing these challenges alone.
I knew that, for me, the most difficult aspect of the war would be that I come down on the far side of this issue from my congregation, the rabbi, and most of my friends. And I knew that the only path to keeping the peace in my life was silence.
Whenever the word Israel was mentioned, I would get up and leave the room, even if it was in my own house. I left my chorus and avoided contacting people who I hadn’t heard from since the war started. I was becoming steadily less sociable and more depressed, and for the first time I can remember I began to dread the onset of Shabbat.
“...to forget the Torah and disregard Your will. But You stood by them in their time of distress.”
I was simultaneously gearing up for my next mission: to build a giant Chanukah menorah for dedication on the town common. I thought it would be a great addition to have a Chanukah party at the new Greenfield library after the ceremony, so I applied for use of the meeting room.
“We can’t allow this event,” the director told me. “You know what’s going on in Israel. We don’t want to take sides.”
I was told that the Trustees were meeting that afternoon, and I could appeal to them. As I furiously prepared notes and called friends, I asked myself, why do I care so much about the party? The menorah was the objective. This would have been a side dish.
The answer came at me like a tornado, and I put my head down. I had tried everything I could to avoid talking about the war, but it had found me anyway. G-d had rejected my silence.
“...but You stood by them in their time of distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged wrong done to them.”
Incredibly, the Trustees accepted our appeal, overruled the director, and allowed the event! I am convinced this was a miracle.
“...You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure to the pure, the wicked to the righteous, wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.”
The deeper truth of the story of Chanukah is that it was not just a war with the Greeks — it was also a civil war; Orthodox Jews on one side, liberals and Atheists on the other. The Greek government paid the Atheists to desecrate the holy sites in Jerusalem, and the traditionalists had to fight their own people, then the Greek army, to reclaim their right to Jewish identity.
When the war was over and the Maccabees had reclaimed the Holy Temple, they built a new menorah. They went to light it and found themselves short of oil, but it miraculously burned for eight days.
Something is missing from this explanation.
The Chanukah menorah is commonly viewed as a symbol of peace; given the context, one could argue it is a symbol of defiance. But I think it’s something else: a symbol of faith.
You see, upon reclaiming their sanctuary, the Maccabees (Maccabee is a Hebrew acronym for “who is like You, O G-d”) built a new menorah and lit it with the last of the purest oil, with the seal of the High Priest.
This oil was only enough to last one day, after which they would have had no choice but to use substandard oil. Instead of despairing, however, they had such absolute faith in G-d that their faith alone manifested the other seven days’ worth.
“...You made a name for Yourself in this world, and effected a great redemption on the Jewish people to this very day. Your children entered Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to praise Your great name.”
Please join me for the dedication of Greenfield’s Chanukah menorah, Wednesday, December 13th, 5:30 p.m. on the town common. We will then proceed to the library for snacks, games, live music, and a talk by Rabbi Chaim Adelman.
Jasper Lapienski is a congregant at the Chabad House at Amherst, Chabad-Lubavitch.
The Chabad House holds Shabbat services on Friday evenings when UMass is in session and every Saturday at 10:00 a.m., year-round, plus special services for Jewish holidays. 30 North Hadley Rd in Amherst.
Jasper hosts “Kabbalah & Chasidic Philosophy” at his home at 34 Washington St in Greenfield, Sundays at 7:00 p.m.