This Tuesday is the first night of Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights during which menorahs are lit in Jewish homes across Long Island. This week’s clergy discuss the significance of the candelabra to Jews throughout history and around the modern world.
Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
Midway Jewish Center, Syosset
For a stripped down, bare minimum, no-frills sort of Hanukkah, one would essentially need only three things — a book of matches, candles or oil for fuel and a menorah. Latkes? Not necessary. Dreidels? Not really. Gifts? Fuhgetaboutit! It is only the lighting of the menorah that is key to the holiday. Each night, we light one additional candle. The holiday begins with one lit candle and ends with all eight branches of the menorah burning brightly. This ritual recalls the miracle of the oil. When the fighting Maccabees (second century BCE) wrested the holy Temple from the hands of the Syrian Greeks, and found only one small jar of kosher oil sufficient for one night of light, the oil burned in the Temple’s menorah a full eight days. A miracle! But the real miracle of Hanukkah is the triumph of an idea. The Syrian Greeks wanted all people to pray to their gods and follow Greek customs. Many Jews were sympathetic to Greek traditions, but the majority did not want those traditions imposed upon them, especially at the expense of Jewish customs. The lit menorah reminds us that an enlightened culture makes room for multiple traditions and many faiths. There are many paths that lead the way to God and godliness. We need not all walk the same path, but we must respect each other’s journeys. Now don’t opt for the no-frills Hanukkah. Play dreidel, give each other some gifts, nosh on those latkes and above all, light the menorah!
Rabbi Mendy Goldberg
Lubavitch of the East End, Coram
Celebrating Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, recalls the victory — more than 2,100 years ago — of a militarily weak but spiritually strong Jewish people over the mighty forces of a ruthless enemy that had overrun the Holy Land and threatened to engulf the land and its people in darkness. The miraculous victory, led by Judah the Maccabee, culminated with the dedication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem and the rekindling of the menorah, which had been desecrated and extinguished by the enemy. The victory has been celebrated during these eight days of Hanukkah, especially by lighting the Hanukkah menorah as a symbol and message of the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness. This message is forever more pertinent as the forces of darkness are ever present in the form of the erosion of morals, values and principles that are at the foundation of any decent human society. Our sages said, “A little light expels a lot of darkness.” The menorah reminds us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one’s family, by increasing and intensifying the light of decency, goodness and kindness in the everyday experience. The menorah is expressly meant to illuminate the “outside,” symbolically alluding to the duty to bring light also to those who, for one reason or another, still walk in darkness. Let us pray that the message of the menorah will illuminate the everyday life of everyone personally, and of the society at large, for a brighter life in every respect, both materially and spiritually.
Rabbi Marc A. Gruber
Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth
From antiquity, the pre-eminent symbol of the Jewish religion has been the menorah, the seven-branched candlestick which was found first in the Tabernacle of Moses, and later in the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem. That menorah is described in the Torah (Exodus 25: 31-37), when God instructs Moses to “make a lampstand of pure gold . . . its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes and petals shall be of one piece. Six branches shall issue from its sides.” The seven-branched menorah became the symbol of our Jewish religion. It provided light in the sanctuary and hope in our hearts. In the time of the Maccabees, when the Seleucid Empire forbade the practice of Judaism and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, this light was extinguished. After the Maccabees won independence, they rededicated the Temple and relit the menorah. The Jewish people belatedly celebrated the eight-day festival of Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret, the fall harvest holiday of thanksgiving. As the holiday of Hanukkah was established, a special nine-branched menorah was used to provide commemorative light and hope. Without hope the Jews would not have rebelled; without hope the Maccabees might have quit. They were unwilling to abandon the source of their fortitude, the Torah, Jewish practice and the covenant with God. They risked their lives because they had hope in a more meaningful future for themselves and their descendants. They built their hopes into our history. We recreate hope when we light the Hanukkah menorah. We know in our hearts that we can make our society better and our lives meaningful.