Beneath torches on an autumn night, the Maccabee fighters tramped through the courtyard on the Temple Mount, up the stairs, and finally crossed the lintel of the Holy Temple. It was dark as a tomb inside, darker than ever they’d known it, and unguessed items crunched and rolled beneath their feet. As their eyes adjusted, the wreckage left by the Greeks came into focus. Men cursed, softly. A few wept. The golden menorah lay on its side, its seven branches twisted with looters’ efforts. Grain for the sacred showbread was scattered like dust across the floor. The sacred oil dripped across the stones to a heap of slaughtered hogs whose bodies, glistening with it, blocked the doorway to the Holy of Holies. Judah looked around at his men’s stricken faces. He took a great breath in, began to speak, and stopped. In that moment, the war they’d fought to reach this threshold seemed a mere prelude. How could one begin to clean the desecration? How could the Temple be made holy, and theirs, once more?
We know how this story ends. The menorah, lit by a miraculously long-lived jar of olive oil blessed by the High Priest, burned for eight days until more could be prepared (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21b). The Maccabees cleaned house, physically and communally, scrubbing every trace of Hellenization from their Temple and the assimilated Jewish population. Judaism was saved to fight another day; the Temple was rededicated, and it continued as the physical site of Jewish holiness for another two hundred and thirty-three years.
There came a day when Jewish access to permanent holy space came crashing down around our people’s ears, yet in the thundering echoes of the Second Temple’s fall, the kol d’mama dakah, the still small voice, calling on our yeitzer hatov, our impulse towards the good, could still be heard. It reverberated in Jewish ears as new Jewish practices developed. Jewish bodies and souls became the dwelling places of God’s holiness, not a Temple or an altar or even the inside of an Ark. What happens in our homes, in our bellies, on our forearms and foreheads and lips, doesn’t require a Temple’s apparatus to sanctify. Personal holiness comes from personal dedication.
I believe we are still called by that voice, quiet but indomitable, to cultivate the holiness of our inner selves. What do we need to burn brightly, to offer our best to our world, to celebrate? And I believe we are called by the same voice to be aware: what violates our sense of inner holiness, our spiritual equilibrium? What desecrations are ours to fight?
Perhaps this “minor holiday” of Hanukkah – absent from Tanakh – has become so firmly entrenched in our Jewish year, because we all have times when our own inner sense of what is sacred is profaned. Hanukkah gives us a blueprint for response: fight that desecration, for as long as you have to, and then rekindle your flame.
For me, the tenet of welcome and value for the immigrant is sacred. It lives at the intersection of why I love being Jewish and why I love being American. The past three years of vitriolic public discourse and dehumanizing immigration policy have profaned that tenet. In my heart, the “American dream” is married to our Torah text, “You shall love the immigrant, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34 and elsewhere in Torah). The fight to rededicate the welcome America offers to migrants, is a large fight and a long one. Its battles play out on the national stage, the local, and the personal. I do not know what the outcome will be. But I know that if I turn away from this struggle, if I accept historically low refugee caps and the caging of human beings and the separation of families, if I accept the doors of America slamming shut, then I allow my own inner sanctum to remain breached and violated. If I stay silent, I leave my lamps unlit.
Each person’s own lamps are particular to them – each household, master of their own menorah, knows its needs and strengths best. In community, our needs are seen and tended to; in community, our strengths are multiplied. Hanukkah reminds us to pause, celebrate and clearly envision increases in holiness, at the darkest time of year. We follow the teachings of Rabbi Hillel and light one more candle each night, to keep lifting ourselves “up” in holiness even in this act. In times and moods of chaos, when places and institutions that once felt holy may no longer feel inviolable, we are all called to turn inward: to our values and our actions. Then to share them with each other, and to make them count. On this Hanukkah, let us rededicate ourselves.
Cantor Vera Broekhuysen leads Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill.