“Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe, who has commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.” With these words of blessing, Jews across the globe will begin a holiday celebration this week, a celebration older than any December tradition observed in the West.
Hanukkah is a relatively modern festival, as far as Jewish custom goes. It is “only” about 2,200 years old. Roughly two centuries before the Common Era, Jews were facing one of the many near-extinction events of their history.
Antiochus IV, a Greek king occupying Israel, implemented a pogrom against the people, persecuting and killing their leaders, outlawing their customs, and desecrating the ancient and sacred temple of Jerusalem.
When the people resisted, Antiochus responded with unbridled fury. By some accounts, he massacred some 50,000 Jews — young and old — and deported or sold that many more into slavery. With these escalating atrocities, a rural priest named Mattathias ben Johanan led a revolt against the Greek king to retake the Jewish temple and reimplement traditional customs.
Mattathias and his five sons became known as the Maccabees, the “Hammers,” and they successfully pummeled the Greek king and his armies until the Jews were once again free from oppression. Thus, Hanukkah has been celebrated ever since, this Festival of Lights, commemorating the rededication of the Jewish temple millennia ago.
This year, as the menorahs dance with tiny flickers of fire, latkes and doughnuts burst from the kitchens, and the week of gift-giving is honored, once again a tragic custom has befallen the Jewish people. Once again they must resist those who hate, marginalize, and attempt to exterminate them.
Recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released its annual report on hate crimes for 2017. Anecdotally, it has seemed like intolerance has only grown worse, and now the statistics prove as much. There was a 17% increase in hate crimes last year, and 60% of all investigated cases were anti-Semitic in nature — and these are 2017, numbers.
The most recent crimes, including the horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s L’Simcha Congregation — the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history — are not yet calculated.
One would think that a people persecuted by ancient empires, maligned by medieval Christians, exterminated by Crusaders, forced into ghettos throughout European history, and pushed to extinction in the last century by weaponized, catastrophic evil, that such a people could finally find solace within today’s Western democracies.
But in spite of it all, and “B’ezrat HaShem” (with God’s help), the Jewish community joyfully presses on, hardly strangers to atrocity. For another Hanukkah they will celebrate with their families. They will light the candles of remembrance, and once again find the collective strength to resist the darkness.
The Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a moral mountain of a man, said, “Even in darkness it is still possible to create light and encourage compassion.” We can do exactly that this holiday season, by joining our Jewish brothers and sisters in solidarity, shining God’s light on hatred’s shadows.