In the immortal words of Adam Sandler, "It's time to celebrate Hanukkah!" But what exactly is Hanukkah, and why is it relevant to us today?

About 22 hundred years ago, a Seleucid king occupied Jerusalem, looted the Temple, and outlawed Judaism. The Seleucids had inherited part of Alexander the Great's empire, and they were culturally Greek or "Hellenized." It seems the Seleucids were egged on by a group of assimilated Jews who opposed the more traditional Jews of Jerusalem. As a result of the Seleucid invasion and the sacking of their Temple, the Jewish population revolted, led by Judah Maccabee (a/k/a The Hammer) and his family. The Maccabees ultimately liberated Jerusalem and re-dedicated the Temple. But they found that there was only enough oil to light the eternal flame and keep it burning for one day. It would take eight days to get a new supply of oil. The miracle of Hanukkah is that one day of oil lasted for eight days.

Today, we celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a menorah (candelabra) that holds eight candles, plus an additional candle called the shamash, which is used to light the other eight. On the first night, we light one candle, and on each subsequent night of the holiday, we add another candle until the last night, when we light all eight candles plus the shamash. I suppose to keep up with our Christian neighbors, we also give presents on each night of the holiday (growing up, my presents were usually socks or underwear, but these days, standards have improved!). To remember the oil, we also eat food cooked with oil, primarily latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts).

There are a few important rules about the Hanukkah candles. For one, they cannot be used for any purpose other than observing the holiday, so we cannot use them as lights for reading, for example. Also, the menorah is meant to be displayed publicly, and is often placed so that it is visible through a window (being careful not to set the curtains on fire, of course). Also, the miracle of Hanukkah is a funny sort-of thing. The Jewish people defeated the powerful Seleucid empire, cleaned up and restored the Temple, and found enough oil to light the flame for one night. The "miracle" that largely defines the holiday is that G-d kept that flame burning for seven extra nights. Of all the events in the Hanukkah story, keeping the flame lit for an extra week doesn't seem like such a big deal.

Amidst the celebration of Hanukkah and the deluge of presents, we sometimes give short shrift to the story of our ancestors' struggle for freedom, and certainly the basis of the holiday is not well known outside the Jewish community. But the lessons of Hanukkah are important, and are relevant to our time.

For one thing, there is the fight itself--a rag tag group of warriors defeated a powerful empire. Perhaps this is the less obvious miracle of Hanukkah, as the victory might not have been possible without divine intervention. But even if we attribute the Maccabees' success to G-d, they still earned their win through tenacity and faith in Jewish values. It reminds me of the old adage from St. Augustine: Pray like everything depends on G-d; act like everything depends on you. The lesson for our own time (and all times) is clear--despite the powerful forces arrayed against us, we must continue to fight for Justice. That is what our ancestors did, and it requires hard work. It also requires faith: Faith in G-d or humanity, or simply faith that right will ultimately defeat might, as long as we stay true to our cause. Put more eloquently, by Rocky Balboa, the patron saint of Philadelphia--

It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!

There is also symbolism in the Hanukkah candles. They provide a light, which reminds us of the eternal flame and the miracle of the oil, of course. But what about the idea that the candle light cannot be used for other activities, like reading? To me, this represents a singularity of purpose. We have to keep our eyes on the prize, as it were. One criticism of the Left is that we tend to lack focus. Go to a rally for immigrant rights and you might see protest signs related to gun control, choice, and gay rights. I get the idea of intersectionality. But I think we need to be better about forming alliances to get things done, even if sometimes those alliances are with people we might otherwise find unpalatable (in typical Jewish fashion, I've also argued the other side of this point, but as they say, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds).

Finally, there is the idea that the menorah should be displayed in a window. This one makes me nervous. I don't really want passerby to know that I am Jewish. Maybe it's because I grew up at a time when the Holocaust dominated our religious school curriculum, but the idea of advertising my religion to the whole neighborhood--which may include neo-Nazis for all I know--seems risky, even irresponsible. Here, though, I think the point is that we should not be afraid to state our values publicly. While there may be some risk in doing so, it is important to stand up for what we believe.

We live at a time when many of our leaders encourage us to hate people perceived as different; to hold "the other" in contempt. They want to divide us with lies and turn us away from the better angels of our nature. It's easy and self-indulgent to hate, especially when we've been given permission to do so. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the light of goodness alive inside ourselves, and to show that light to the world. Living the message of Hanukkah is not easy, and it is not always safe. But it is important. And these days, it is a message we need more than ever.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: