Monday, December 22, 2008

"Hanukah" means "dedication"

When people ask me why we light candles for eight days of Hanukah, I usually tell them that we do so to commemorate a tale of a little flask of oil that survived the destruction of the ancient temple and miraculously enabled the people of Israel to relight the temple's holy flame--designed to stay lit continuously. Despite the fact that the small amount of oil was only enough to keep the flame burning for one day, the flame somehow burned instead for eight days. The magically long-lasting oil allowed sufficient time for more oil to be produced, and thus, the temple could be rededicated to God with its "ner tamid" (eternal flame) properly glowing. Now, some rabbis deem this story an invention told, in part, to heighten the concept of the true miracle that arose from that tragic time in Jewish history: the survival of the steadfast Jewish people against all odds.

I thought about those odds tonight, after lighting the first two candles (we add one per day of the 8-day holiday). How slim were the odds that I would be lighting the commemorative candles tonight with the grandkids of Irving (Itzhak) Lipson (Lipszyc), the one surviving member of his own nuclear family, almost entirely wiped out by Nazis? Now that's a miracle! And how slim were the odds that my children, who have grown up in a minority group within a mostly gentile community, would value their traditions enough to want to share them with both Jewish and non-Jewish friends during the eight days of celebrating? Another miracle to celebrate! How slim were the odds that I--whose own original birth family has mostly abandoned, much to my dismay, the traditions that have held our people together for thousands of years, traditions such as the most essential, enriching, and practical tradition of keeping the Sabbath/Shabbat--would find and maintain such a heartfelt connection to the essence of my people, and realize the meaning of dedication as a means of both continuity and evolution? The odds were roughly the same as the odds of me frying dozens of potato pancakes ("latkes") in a mere teaspoon of oil.

Now, despite its proximity to one of the holiest days for Christians, Hanukah is not one of the holiest days for Jews, but rather, a minor holiday. It's lesson, though, is MAJOR. Jews light candles not just to commemorate a miracle and an uplifting tale, but perhaps more so to reaffirm the strength of dedication, from generation to generation, to a way of life defined by a moral code, service to others for the creation of justice and balance for all, and good deeds that honor and appreciate all of God's creations. This way of life has, like the candles, the power to illuminate--but only if fueled by dedication. Without dedication, the candles are nothing but wax and wick, melted into solid drips, to be scraped off a Hanukah menorah the next morning.

Let us all, no matter what our religions, dedicate (or rededicate) ourselves to staying true to the values that enrich each individual soul and promote harmony for all.