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Asking the clergy: Why is Hanukkah a miraculous celebration?

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell, Cantor Irene Failenbogen and Rabbi Mendel Teldon discuss the biblical stories that inspired the modern observance of Hanukkah.

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth in

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth in Rockville Centre, Cantor Irene Failenbogen of The New Synagogue of Long Island in Brookville and Rabbi Mendel Teldon of Chabad of Mid-Suffolk in Commack. Photo Credit: Julie Skiddell; Irene Failenbogen; Tom Kell

Hanukkah, which is celebrated for eight days beginning at sundown on Dec. 2, is a Jewish holiday rich with traditions such as nightly menorah lightings, prayers and meals with potato pancakes fried in oil. This week’s clergy discuss the biblical stories that inspired the traditions in the modern observance of Hanukkah.

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell

Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth, Rockville Centre

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, reminds us of our responsibility to bring light into a world that sometimes seems so dark. In recent years, Hanukkah has been a time to enjoy success and affluence beyond the imagination of our ancestors, but its origin is clouded by the passage of time and shrouded in myth and legend. According to the well-known story, a band of brothers known by the family name of Hasmoneans, under the leadership of Judah, nicknamed the Maccabee [or the “hammer”], rebelled against the Syrian-Greeks and their Hellenist allies in the 2nd century BCE when the tyrant King Antiochus tried to repress the practice of Judaism. Although greatly outnumbered, and fighting forces with more powerful weapons, the Hasmoneans had faith and were secure in their beliefs. That they were able to defeat the Syrian-Greeks, re-establish Jewish independence and cleanse the temple defiled by the forces of Antiochus was nothing short of miraculous.

The story that is told to children is that when the Hasmoneans were ready to rededicate the temple, they needed to rekindle the temple’s lamps, and there was not enough purified oil to last for more than one day, yet it burned and gave off light for eight days. What a lovely story that is! As adults, though, we are justifiably skeptical, so let us find the miraculous in the idea that a small group committed to a just cause can overcome the most powerful forces of injustice and bring light where there is darkness!

Cantor Irene Failenbogen

The New Synagogue of Long Island, Brookville

Hanukkah is a miraculous celebration on countless levels. Historically, we celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt, a Jewish rebellion against the Hellenistic Greek Empire.

I see the miracle of Hanukkah as an expression that appears in every faith tradition. It is a celebration of hope, the beautiful and desperate cry for humanity. Hanukkah is taking place during the darkest time of the year, when the winter solstice is threatening our bodies and souls with complete darkness. The duality of light and darkness in this world and in every human has been the inspiration for all faith traditions.

The idea of having very little oil, which should bring light for one day but lasts eight instead, is the ultimate description of a miracle. What seems to feel small in the eyes of the faithful person becomes big. This is the spiritual transformation of the holiday. When you light the eight small candles of Hanukkah, you are invited to see the importance of small things in your life: a little gesture of kindness, a smile of compassion, a listening heart, a hand to a stranger, a shoulder when someone needs to cry. These are the gifts we are craving for and need to offer to truly celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah.

Rabbi Mendel Teldon

Chabad of Mid-Suffolk, Commack

In the historical Hanukkah story there were three miracles. The first miracle was that a small, untrained group of Maccabees conquered the mighty Greeks. Then after re-entering the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and realizing that all the pure olive oil had been destroyed, they miraculously found one bottle that was left pure. And finally, even though there was only enough pure oil for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight.

Today, when we celebrate Hanukkah, we recognize the fact that God’s miracles are expressed in so many different ways. Sometimes his miracles are cloaked in nature, (victory of the Maccabees). Sometimes they are random coincidences (finding pure oil). And sometimes it is clearly a miracle from on high (oil lasting eight days). When celebrating today, we associate Hanukkah with lights, food and games, but the celebration has a more personalized message. In Hebrew, the word Hanukkah means “rededication,” based on the Maccabees finding a desecrated and dark temple and working hard to clean it up and rededicate it for its daily use.

Many of us find ourselves in a similar dreary situation. Our personal temple is desecrated. Our pure inner oil seems like it is gone. Our personal Menorah lies darkened. It is natural to stay in that mindset and give up on a brighter future. Stay in the victim mentality and just try to get by. But when people can get up and rededicate themselves to find their inner oil, kindle their personal menorah and then become a source of light to their surroundings … that is truly a miracle.

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