This is my 71st Hanukkah, but it is my third Hanukkah without Tommy.
Father Tom Hartman was my best friend and my partner in the God Squad. When he died on Feb. 16, 2016, I wanted to end this column that we always wrote together, but Tommy made me promise that I would continue to write it. I have tried my best, but it is not the same without him. I still grieve for him.
One of our annual holiday traditions in the column was for Tommy to write about what he loved about Hanukkah, then I would write a column the next week about what I loved about Christmas. This column is what I remember Tommy loved about Hanukkah. Remembering is the best I can do now.
Tommy understood a deep thing about Hanukkah that is also a deep thing about Judaism. All Jewish holidays are celebrated in synagogue just like all Christian holidays are celebrated in church, however, the most important rituals for many Jewish holidays are meant to be celebrated in the home. Hanukkah is particularly home-based, and Tommy loved that. That is why he loved Christmas trees, which are set up in the home and bring the holiday of Christmas closer. Lighting the Hanukkah menorah is a ritual that is intended to be performed at home. Many synagogues do not even have lit menorahs.
This home lighting is a lesson that the Jewish home is the place where Judaism is built and sustained. The home is actually referred to as a "little Temple" (Heb: mikdash m'at). Perhaps because Tommy, like all priests, sacrificed a home of his own to give his life to Christ, he particularly appreciated the times he spent in my home doing Jewish things. He also loved latkes, the fried potato cakes that are eaten on Hanukkah with applesauce (Central European Jews) or sour cream (Eastern European Jews). Frankly, I think Tommy just loved latkes because he saw them as an applesauce delivery system.
Tommy also loved the message of Hanukkah: that one single family, the Maccabees, could make a difference in the world. The Maccabean revolt preserved Judaism in the year 165 BCE when it was a religion on the verge of extinction. The 10 lost tribes had been wiped out in the year 722 BCE and only two of the 12 tribes remained (Judah and Benjamin) near Jerusalem. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and most of the remaining Jews were living in exile after the destruction. The Temple was rebuilt in 516 BCE, but the Jews of Israel had no political or military power. New religions like Gnosticism had arisen that further weakened Judaism and the Jewish people. The attractive culture of Greece also seduced many Jews into living lives that had no Jewish elements whatsoever. In this environment the Maccabees turned Judaism around, giving it new hope and new strength. Tommy often asked me to retell the history of Hanukkah, and he often used it to teach Christian kids that one family can make a difference.
Finally, Tommy loved lights, and Hanukkah is about lights. The lights of the seven-branched Temple Menorah were rededicated on Hanukkah, but the oil for the candelabrum was only sufficient for one day of lighting. Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, and so, on a special menorah eight lights are kindled with a ninth candle used to light the other eight.
Tommy would always say that light is a symbol of God and of truth and of hope. Light is the opposite of darkness. Light was God's first creation. Tommy also loved the connection between the lights of Hanukkah and the lights of the Christmas tree. In the darkest time of the year, light is a special gift. Light is certainly the most spiritually significant of all God's creations. It divides us from the darkness, and it unites us with God.
Tommy loved the light and now he is living in the light.
Happy Hanukkah, from Tommy.