Chanukah is a “celebration of light” the way the Fourth of July is a celebration of fireworks, which is to say: “not quite.” Both holidays commemorate exhausting wars of independence, the devastation of the Temple or the colonial countryside, and times of near-defeat in Jerusalem or Valley Forge.
This December finds us in times more resembling Chanukah’s prelude than we’d prefer. The Temple Mount, the central point of contention then, is contentious still, so many centuries later. It is less a point of inspiration than a point of incitement leading to the current intifada of the knives.
The Greeks didn’t understand Israel’s stubbornness in those days any more than the European Union understands it now. Many of our values and concerns seem under siege, in a manner of speaking, on some key college campuses, and literally under siege at the crossroads of Gush Etzion and in the streets of Paris.
And yet — the two key words at the heart of every Jewish holiday — there is the spirit of defiance born of faith and optimism. It is a defiance that cares little for the odds and less for those who think Chanukah’s defiance futile or foolish. The lights, then as now, are less a celebration than a rededication, a renewed commitment to all the traditions and lessons that came before and all the good that will come again.
Chanukah comes as a reminder that some things are worth fighting for, worth commemorating, with stories worth retelling. The custom is to light the candles in the hours before the streets become empty so that people will see the lights and be inspired by the mitzvah. Perhaps this year, when we’ve seen Paris shuttered, Brussels in lockdown, Jerusalem less crowded and the Gush Etzion area increasingly left alone, the Chanukah candles will light up the night all the more.
Chanukah teaches us the fight is never surrendered and the darkness is never complete. May we celebrate until every candle is lit and every gift of the spirit unwrapped. Chag sameach.