Though tyrants have persecuted us, beaten us, that inner light that burns strong in the heart and soul of the Jewish people refuses to go out.
The story of Chanukah goes back thousands of years to when the Greek Empire dominated the world scene. It is a story of a mighty kingdom trying to impose its culture and values on a tiny and peaceful nation, which clung fiercely to the beliefs and religion that they had adhered to for centuries. To accomplish their goal, the Greeks resorted to cruel oppression and tyrannical practices. But try as they may, the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people could not be vanquished. Sabbaths went on being observed, newborn babies entered into the covenant of Abraham, and Jewish holidays based on the lunar calendar were still celebrated.
A band of courageous men, the Hasmoneans, stood up to the powerful Greek army and fought valiantly; some of them giving their lives for the cause they believed in. Once the Greek army had been repelled and retreated from the land of Israel, our ancestors entered the Holy Temple, where they had served the Almighty Creator of the world. They found that this sacred structure had been ransacked.
Every item anathema to the Jews had been brought into the Temple, and all of the oil jugs used to fill and light the menorah candelabra had their seals broken and were rendered impure. It would take longer than a week to produce more oil, so what would they kindle in the interim? This is where the Chanukah miracle took place! They lit the little bit of oil they had, just enough for one day, and it burned strong for eight consecutive days. To commemorate this miracle, we kindle in our homes a menorah for the eight days of Chanukah.
The Greeks were on a mission to dominate and crush the spirit of the Jewish people. They sought to tear them away from their rich heritage and traditions and break them, and to eventually swallow them up into the prevailing Hellenistic culture. But the spirit of the Jewish people could not be broken. It held strong, and they kept on practicing in the way of their parents and grandparents. They kept their heads up high and fought for what they believed in. The Greeks were not the first and, unfortunately, not the last to attempt to break the Jewish people.
A Modern Miracle
I am reminded of a story that happened to my wife’s grandfather, Henry Berger, a survivor of eight concentration and death camps, including Auschwitz. When he was in a forced labor detail, he was sent into the Warsaw Ghetto after it had been liquidated. His group was tasked with the job of cleaning out the ghetto. He and his fellow inmates were starving, the meager rations given to them by the Germans were not close to enough to sustain life. Henry would find trinkets throughout the emptied ghetto, hide them beneath his uniform and then trade them with the local Polish peasants as the work detail was marched through the towns and villages. He took the food and distributed it among his fellow prisoners, as every calorie meant the difference between life and death.
One day, he was caught, viciously beaten, and left for dead. His friends carried his broken body back to camp and, after a few days, he miraculously recovered. His first day back on the job, as he was clearing debris from the ghetto, he once again collected some trinkets to barter with the peasants to provide some nourishment for his fellow prisoners. His body was imprisoned, but his spirit was free. The Germans were unsuccessful in breaking his kind Jewish spirit.
This is the story of Chanukah — that small little flame, the Jewish spirit burning strong through the night, through the darkest of times, impossible to extinguish. Though tyrants have persecuted us, beaten us, that inner light that burns strong in the heart and soul of the Jewish people refuses to go out. It goes on shining, illuminating the world. The Torah teaches that just a little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.
Several years ago, I visited the Mammoth Caves in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the largest underground cave system in the world. Our tour guide warned us that he was about to turn off the electric lights in the cave. When he hit the switch, it went completely dark. But then he lit just one little match and the entire cavernous room lit up — from that one tiny flame. That humble little flame, the Chanukah light, the spirit of the Jewish people, will go on illuminating the world.
Rabbi Chaim Fink is an educator with Partners Detroit.