The Hanukkah story takes place in ancient Israel during the Second Temple era, when the Jewish homeland was controlled by Greek monarchs who vied for power after the glory days of Alexander the Great.
The Greeks’ encounter with the Jewish people was like no other. In a society founded on pagan beliefs and practices, the Jews’ worship of and belief in the one God was foreign, strange, and unacceptable to the Greeks.
Yet unlike Haman from the Purim story, the Greeks didn’t seek to annihilate the Jewish people, nor did they seek to remove us from our land. Rather, it was our belief in God and our unique service of His will that they sought to erase from our national memory.
During their occupation of Israel, the Greeks banned the practice of Judaism, as well as the study of Torah. They also erected an idol of Zeus in the Holy Temple, and sacrificed pigs on its altar.
If the Jews of that time agreed to relinquish their faith, the Greeks would have embraced them, at least initially, and would have welcomed them into their culture and society. But the Jewish spirit refused to remain silent. A small and rebellious group of priests – who were used to the pious Temple life and were not hardened military warriors – began an uprising which miraculously succeeded in overcoming the Greek army and restoring the Temple.
But this miraculous military victory over the Greeks is not the only reason we celebrate Hanukkah. Jews have fought and won battles against enemies far larger and better equipped, and we do not celebrate each of these successes with a holiday.
The reason we celebrate Hanukkah is due to the spiritual battle between secular culture and faith, symbolized by the candles we light each night.
The pagan religion the Greeks were bound to no longer exists, but its emphasis on external power, competitiveness, and materialism is just as prevalent today as it was back then. And so how do we win this battle, against forces seemingly greater than ourselves?
I believe the answer is found in the Hanukkah menorah. Each night we light a candle, adding one additional candle for eight nights, and that’s it. In fact, it is the easiest Jewish holiday to keep – all you need are candles and a book of matches, and you’re set.
And that is exactly the point. How do we hold to our morals and our beliefs while confronting the tsunami of materialism, corruption, and a breakdown of institutions we once held to high esteem? By small, faith-driven acts of kindness, prayer, and uplifting interactions with friends and family. Like a lighthouse showing the way back to shore on a stormy night, the Hanukkah menorah lights our path through this sometimes dark world, reminding us of the power of our God and our faith in Him.