Rabbi Alexander Kress
I have always been captivated by the story of Chanukah. We are told of King Antiochus and the big, bad Greeks, who outlawed Jewish rituals like Shabbat and desecrated the Jerusalem Temple with Greek idols and the sacrifice of swine. Our dreamy hero, Judah the Maccabee, leads an army against the Greeks, ultimately leading to the liberation and rededication of our Temple and independence.
This year, over 2000 years after the Maccabees’ triumphant victory, we will celebrate the miracle of Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence. For centuries, Jews in the diaspora have celebrated Chanukah by playing with a dreidel whose sides make up the acronym nes gadol haya sham - a great miracle happened there. Today in Israel, they play with a dreidel that says nes gadol haya po - a great miracle happened here. Though it marks the miracle of a regained ancient autonomy, it also marks the miracle of Israel’s modern autonomy. Few holiday celebrations in Israel so tangibly connect our history to our current reality.
Celebrating Chanukah in Israel comes with a breathtaking depth of meaning and history. Wandering through Jerusalem’s Old City, mere feet from the Temple Mount where the Maccabees once rededicated the Temple, is an awe-inspiring experience. As you wind through the maze of narrow alleyways, families gather in their windows and invite passersby to join in prayer and song. Thousands of chanukiyot illuminate our ancient city and its unique stone on the darkest days of the year. And perhaps my favorite part of Chanukah in Jerusalem are the bakeries on every corner overflowing with special sufganiyot (the ultimate in fried jelly doughnuts).
As Chanukah approaches this year, a year in which there has been much darkness in our world, I am lifted by the warm, vibrant scenes of Chanukah in Jerusalem. The radiance of the eighth night, warming the crisp winter air, brings to mind the biblical directive to “Be a light unto the nations.” But what does it mean to be a light to others?
One place we can find guidance is Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The document imagines a society “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” This aspirational vision “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Though a Jewish State, the founders “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” and to “safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”
As we light our chanukiyot this year and bring light into the world, may we meditate on the ideals of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and work hard to bring them to fruition in our own country. Then, perhaps, we will bring much-needed light to our nation in the darkest hours of winter.
Rabbi Alex Kress