As the sun begins to set on Wednesday evening, Jews and their families throughout the world will light the first light of the Hanukkah menorah. They will recite the blessings, sing a medley of Hanukkah songs, enjoy potato latkes and/or sufganiot (fried jelly donuts), play dreidel and other games, and perhaps even give or exchange gifts. Hanukkah, a Festival of Light in a season of darkness, is a joyful holiday, warming our spirits during the coldest time of the year.
Among the blessings that will be recited is one that praises God for the
miracles God performed for our ancestors in their day, at this time of year (“she’asah nisim lavoteinu, bayamim ha’heym, bazman hazeh”). It is this blessing that recalls the historical dimension of the holiday, the time in our people’s history when our ancestors were miraculously able to overcome an oppressive foreign power that had increasingly prevented them from practicing their religious traditions freely, without fear of reprisal or punishment. The small band of fighters known as the Maccabees fought for their right to worship Judaism freely. To this day, we observe Hanukkah not only to celebrate the freedom of religious expression that they secured in their day, but also, for the freedom that we — in part as a result of their efforts — enjoy in ours.
The word Hanukkah means dedication. It reminds us how, according to the Talmudic story, the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem. After cleansing it from being ritually defiled, they rededicated it so that Jews could once again worship there and bring their offerings to the altar.
I’d like to suggest that in our day, an era in which most of us experience unprecedented freedoms, we might want to add a new dimension to our Hanukkah observance: To use it as a time to rededicate ourselves to some of the important values and ideals which form the foundation of our Jewish tradition.
Perhaps we can choose a different value or ideal to focus on each day. We might have a discussion with family members or friends or community about some of the ways that we might better express that value or ideal in our lives. On any given night we might, for example, choose to give tzedakah to an organization that works to support that value or ideal in our community or society. Or, we might commit to engaging in some sort of act: Writing an op-ed piece to the local newspaper or a letter to the editor, advocating for or helping make others aware of particular issues.
I imagine that this addition to our Hanukkah observance could look like this:
Day 1: As we light the first candle, we rededicate ourselves to the ideal that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We feel outrage over the recent suicides which have been brought on by homophobic bullying and intolerance. On this first night of Hanukkah, we commit to ending homophobic bullying or harassment of any kind in our synagogues, schools, organizations, and communities. We join with tens of thousands of others in the Jewish community throughout the United States, and sign our names to the Jewish Community Pledge: http://www.jewishcommunitypledge.org.
Day 2: As we light the second candle, we rededicate ourselves to demonstrate the values of chesed and rachamim, loving kindness and compassion, to those who are less fortunate. This night, we will give tzedakah to the Jewish Family Service (or another) food bank, to help those who are hungry and struggling to make ends meet on limited or no incomes.
Day 3: As we light the third candle, we rededicate ourselves to the value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life. Many people throughout the world, even in the United States and Israel — including children — are sold into slavery each year. Tonight we do what we can to save one life, for in saving one life we save the world. Tonight we give tzedakah to Atzum, an organization that seeks to end trafficking in Israel (http://www.atzum.org/about-atzum1).
And so on. Thinking of the different values to focus on each night and day might also provide opportunities for valuable discussions among family members and friends about what is ultimately important and about how we can best use our time and resources to help better this world. Maybe in our time, bazman hazeh, we have an opportunity to change Hanukkah from a holiday of receiving gifts, to a holiday of giving to and helping others. A time of rededicating ourselves to the values and ideals that we hold most dear.