The war in Iraq ended last week, after 9 years. In our thoughts are the 4,487 U.S. troops who died, along with 110,125 Iraqi combatants and civilians. We also honor the 32,426 American soldiers who were injured, countless others wounded and so many families whose lives are changed forever.
Sensitive to the toll of war on human life and society, this week we celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday that transforms a military battle into a spiritual symbol of light, hope, and peace. This is what we understand first about Hanukkah. Military outcomes or victories are short-lived. Their memories linger.
The Maccabee’s battle began as a fight for religious liberty and became a struggle for political independence. After reclaiming and rededicating the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE, the Maccabees continued to fight. Over time they lost popular support. Their ability to govern Judea weakened. A century after the Hanukkah event, Rome ruled in Israel.
The Maccabee’s military victory did not endure. 235 years after the Jewish victory over the Greco-Syrians, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. If this had been the whole story, we wouldn’t be celebrating Hanukkah.
But it’s not the whole story. As most of us are well aware, the Jewish people – as expressed in rabbinic lore and tradition – re-made Hanukkah into a memory of faith and light. Honoring the memory of the Temple and its rededication, speaking of God’s presence and the wonder of being, and being Jewish, reciting b’rakhot and praise, through ritual and recitation, today Hanukkah celebrates Jewish religious identity.
Military might is short-lived. What we remember in the long run are the habits and dreams of our hearts, the things we believe, cherish, and in which we place our hopes. That’s why I ask every child I meet during Hanukkah, “what did you give?” All of us can give of ourselves to others. We can give our love and help, hugs and smiles, friendship and caring.
Sit around the Hanukkiyah as the lights shine bright and talk about your values and ideals. Tell your family and friends what’s important to you and what being Jewish means to you. Each night, be the light of Hanukkah for someone else. Honor the prophet Zechariah’s famous words describing the symbol of a Menorah: “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says the Eternal God.”
Celebrating Hanukkah this year, marking the end of one war and the continuation of another, let’s think about what we hope for, what light and joy we require and desire, and all the goodness and peace our world can still come to know.