What is Hanukkah?

The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 21a) poses the query: “What is Hanukkah?” 

The Talmud then tells us the basic outline of the holiday story- the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the Greek-Syrians, which culminated in the public lighting of the seven-branched Menorah of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Says the Talmud: Na’aseh Bo Nays – a miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight full days. The following year, on the first anniversary of the event, the Rabbis formally instituted the festival of Hanukkah.

In response to the Talmud’s question, we may ask: why institute a holiday just because of a miracle? Since when are the Jewish people so impressed with miracles that we respond by instituting an entire holiday? Miracles happened all the time! In chapter five of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), we are told that ten miracles occurred daily in the Holy Temple. Yet, no holiday was established to commemorate those miracles! Truly, why Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is unique in that it focuses on our view of the world. It focuses on our unique perspective. It demonstrates that we understand that the manifestation of miracle and nature are both revelations of G-d’s mastery over the world. For those who grant G-d a role as Creator of the World but not one actively involved in its goings-on, a miracle is truly impressive.

But as for the Jewish people, why is Hanukkah so impressive? We know that every day G-d renews the creative process. The sun rises again; a baby is born. These are both daily reminders of the ongoing creative forces of the Almighty. To establish a special festival means that the Rabbis wanted to teach us something special via Hanukkah.

Hanukkah teaches us that we must live up to our potential. Hanukkah shows us that a little oil had more in it than we expected. The Hanukkah flame exhorts us to live up to our full potential as human beings and as Jews. We must have no small dreams, no attempts at half measures or low profiles. Mediocrity is the antithesis of the Hanukkah message. 

The word Hanukkah in Hebrew means “dedication.” The holiday celebration exhorts us to rededicate ourselves to our values and principles. During this pandemic, we must especially rededicate ourselves to caring for others and being more attentive to others’ daily welfare and health. 

At Jewish Family Service, our commitment to all members of the Dallas community remains strong and vital even during these very difficult and trying times. Our Food Pantry, with its outstanding Agency workers and volunteers, meets the critical needs of hundreds upon hundreds of men, women, and children every Thursday. The social workers and counselors of JFS continue to work with an increasing number of clients, even as it must now be done via Zoom, Facetime, and the like. 

Dedication is the hallmark of Jewish Family Service. Collectively we maintain that light of the Hanukkah Menorah.

-Rabbi Howard Wolk

Community Chaplain, Jewish Family Service

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