It’s the first night of Hanukkah, and I’m resting with my feet up after spending two and a half hours this evening (before and after a basketball game) making potato latkes from scratch. I made them for my students so that I can celebrate Hanukkah with four different Bible classes tomorrow at school.
The first student who says they taste like hash browns is getting smacked.
My five menorahs are candle-filled and waiting. Actually, we burned a set of candles in each last week when the judges for the decorating contest visited. (We won.) Little wooden dreidls wait, too; the kids have been playing with them since I put them out a few weeks ago. I have more in my closet, and everyone can take one home.
Hanukkah matters to me for a couple of reasons. One is my Jewish heritage. My ancestors on my mom’s side probably observed the holiday for two millennia. (Thatsalotta heritage.) And the other is my Christian heritage. I believe that without Hanukkah, Christmas may not have happened. If the Maccabees had not stopped Antiochus, would Mary and Joseph have been raised as godly Jews, available and worthy to be chosen by God?
I wrote the following thoughts a few years ago. I hope they bless you, even if you don’t have a Jewish bubbe.
Advertise the Miracle
The window may be in a hovel in a village or a condo in a high-rise, a brownstone on a tree-lined city street or a split-level on a landscaped suburban lot. In the window, candle flames dance in an eight-branched candelabra. The illuminated menorah invites curiosity or inspires respect; it initiates ridicule or ignites persecution. Defying consequences, the ancient teaching stands that “the candelabrum should be kindled in a prominently visible place ‘to advertise the miracle’”1 of Hanukkah.
While the event commemorated in the Hebrew month Kislev occurred in 164 BCE, Hanukkah originated more than a millennium earlier in the fire and smoke of the holy mountain, Sinai. There Moses heard God’s command to construct a traveling house of worship, the Tabernacle, and its furnishings, including a hammered gold lampstand—in Hebrew, menorah. Using pure olive oil, the seven flames of the lampstand were to burn perpetually before Yahweh, who had first spoken to Moses from a burning desert bush.
Nearly 500 years later, King Solomon replaced the humble Tabernacle with a majestic Temple built in Jerusalem on a threshing floor purchased by his father, the shepherd-king, David. In this grand edifice Solomon placed not one, but ten golden lampstands to flame unceasingly before the Lord.
All too soon, mighty empires conquered the Hebrew people. First the Assyrians ravaged their northern kingdom, then the Babylonians crushed their southern kingdom, desolating Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. Later the monarchs of the Persian Empire allowed the Temple to be rebuilt, and the menorah burned in Jerusalem again.
When Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire, he acquired the tiny Hebrew nation, and granted the Jews freedom to worship Yahweh and practice their religious laws and traditions. One hundred fifty years later, Antiochus IV was not so kind. Called Epiphanes—the gods’ beloved—he was better known as Epimanes—the Madman.
Antiochus outlawed Judaism in the Jewish homeland, forbidding Torah study, circumcision, and Sabbath observance. He erected altars to Greek gods in Jerusalem’s streets, placed a statue of Zeus in the temple, and slaughtered a pig on the altar.
Five brothers, sons of a priest, rebelled against this outrage, and formed a band of guerrilla fighters. Their slogan—Who is like you among the gods, O Lord?—was in Hebrew an acrostic for maccabee, or hammer. Joined by farmers and peasants, and led by the priest’s son, Judah, they hid in mountain caves by day and destroyed pagan statues and attacked soldiers at night. Within a few years, this small, poorly-armed company defeated 40,000 soldiers and captured Jerusalem.
The Jews reclaimed their Temple, purifying it from the Madman’s desecrations. As they prepared to relight the menorah, they unearthed one jar of oil, marked with the high priest’s seal, enough to sustain the lampstand for one day. Though producing ritually pure oil was a seven-day task, they kindled the flame, and it blazed as evening and morning marked the first day…and the second…and the third…and the fourth….Recalling the ancient miracles of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, one jar of oil multiplied to fuel the holy fire for eight days.
And so each evening of Hanukkah adds another candle’s glow, until eight flames honor the heroic Maccabees and magnify the miracle-working God of the Jews…whatever the consequences. The menorah in the window whispers a message to us today, worshipers of God in an increasingly godless world.
The light of our words and actions may invite curiosity or inspire respect; it may instigate ridicule or incite persecution. Fear cautions us to bolt the door and shutter the window. Faith counsels us to throw open the door, kindle our light and place it in the window.
May we always choose faith and advertise the miracles of God.
1 Oxford Dictionary of Jewish Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, page 301.