Building something from scratch, from nothing, is an admirable task, but rebuilding what has been destroyed, torn down and desecrated is even more admirable. The miracle of Chanukah is a celebration of rebuilding.
By Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Menorah designed by Studio Armadillo
Photography by Shachar Tamir
At this time of year, if you see a home with candles glowing in the window, chances are that it’s a Jewish family celebrating Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. In Hebrew, the word Chanukah means “dedication,” for this holiday commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews defeated the Syrian-Greeks.
The Greek king Antiochus IV decided to force the Jews to Hellenize, forbidding Jews to practice their religion. He desecrated the Holy Temple, ordering a statue of Zeus be erected in it and sacrifices be made to pagan gods on the altar. The Maccabees rebelled and won, rededicated the Temple, and lit the menorah. Ever since then, we have celebrated the rededication by lighting the menorah in our homes.
But celebrating a rededication seems a bit strange. There is no Jewish holiday devoted to the initial construction of either the first or second Temples. Why do we celebrate Chanukah, when the Temple was merely being restored to its former glory?
The answer is that celebrating Chanukah teaches us a vital lesson about Jewish values: while it is important to build, the ability to rebuild is more important.
In our own lives, it is not hard to start something new, for we are excited and move forward with enthusiasm. Everyone keeps their New Year’s resolutions at the very beginning. But the decision to rededicate yourself after repeated failures is far more difficult. Starting a business from nothing and succeeding is a challenge, but to go bankrupt and confront despair and then to pick yourself up and start anew—that is a truly daunting task.
In his famous commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs told the story of the three setbacks that shaped his life: dropping out of college, being fired from Apple, the company he had founded, and being diagnosed with cancer. Rather than being defeated by these setbacks, he rededicated himself and turned them all to creative use.
Setbacks are part of the life stories of the most successful people. What matters in the long run is not our failures, but our ability to persist, to remake ourselves anew.
Sometimes during a medical test, the doctor instructs you to run on a treadmill. It might seem that he is testing to see how fast you can run, or for how long, but he’s not. What he wants to test is how long it takes for your pulse to return to normal when you have finished. Health is measured by the ability to recover, to renew ourselves. We all have this ability, and using it is as fundamental to maintaining life as healthy breathing.
When King Solomon built the Temple the first time, it was straightforward and relatively easy. The Jewish people were enthusiastic. It was a spiritual start-up with lots of angel investment from the public. But hundreds of years later when the Maccabees, their ranks decimated by war, returned to a desecrated Temple, restoring it to its former splendor was a far tougher challenge.
Their success is what we celebrate on Chanukah. The secret of Jewish survival over the ages, through all the defeats, expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, even the Holocaust itself, is our ability to rebuild and renew ourselves after destruction.
It is an iron law of history that civilizations rise, achieve greatness and appear indestructible, but in the end they falter and fall, and disappear. Yet Judaism has endured. More remarkable still, each tragedy our people have suffered has inspired a new explosion of creativity and renewal.
Last summer in Israel, inside the walls of the Old City near the Jaffa Gate, I noticed an ancient block of stone. It is a very busy place, and most people rush by. But if you stop and look closely you can see carved on that stone the letters “LEG X.” That stone is a relic of the Tenth Roman Legion, the Legion commanded by Vespasian.
It was the Legion that destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the Jews throughout the world. Yet, after two thousand years of wandering, Jews have triumphantly restored their ancient and unforgotten home. Ironically, in recent renovations, that block of Roman stone has been recycled and now serves as the base for a Jerusalem street lamp.
Those who decimated Jerusalem have vanished. What remains of that Legion now is a pillar of light that illuminates those they sought to destroy.
The Chanukah story still lives, still inspires, because it is a reminder that even when we are defeated, we have within us what it takes to rise again. To begin, to stand up for the first time is an adventure, filled with excitement and hope. To begin anew after being destroyed—that is a miracle.
Chanukah reminds us that the tiny, critical spark that fuels that miracle can be found in each of us. By observing Chanukah, we acknowledge that reserve of strength that we have, individually and together. In doing so, we fuel the flames of our soul, and rekindle anew our commitment to building and rebuilding a Jewish future.
By Chani Rosenblum
- In the Chanukah menorah or Chanukiah, all candles must be of the same height except for the Shamash, which is the special “attendant” candle that we use to kindle the other lights. The lights must also be placed in a straight line.
- The Menorah should be set up either by the door, (on a chair or small table near the doorpost, opposite the mezuzah). Or on a windowsill facing the street, as long as it is less than thirty feet above ground-level.
- The menorah is lit shortly after sunset, or after nightfall. On Friday night the menorah must be lit before Shabat candles, and after lit they shouldn’t be moved nor reignited. On Saturday night it is lit after nightfall, (after Havdala).
- Chanukah candles should be placed or added from right to left, and lit from left to right. We must make sure that the candles are long enough to remain lit for at least half an hour after nightfall.
- Before lighting the Chanukah candles with the Shamash, which should always be lit first, you must recite the respective blessings. Once finished lighting the candles, return the Shamash to its place.
- Each night, we place a new candle, not counting the Shamash, so that on the second night of Chanukah, for example, we place two candles; the third night we place three, and so forth, so the number of Chanukah candles in your Hanukkiyah matches the night of Chanukah.
- Both men and women light the Chanukah menorah, or participate in the household menorah lighting. Children are encouraged to light their own menorahs. Students and singles who live in dormitories or their own apartments should kindle menorahs in their own rooms.
- Because of the great significance of oil in the story of the Chanukah miracle, it is traditional to serve foods cooked in oil. Among the most popular Chanukah dishes are potato latkes and sufganiot.
- It is also customary to eat cheesy foods on Chanukah, in commemoration of the bravery of Yehudit.
- It is customary to play Sevivon.