After years of war against the Seleucid Empire, the Jews won back the holy temple in Jerusalem. The Greeks had desecrated the temple, making it a place to bring sacrifices to their chief god, Zeus. The Maccabees cleaned the temple and rededicated it to the service of the Jewish people and God.
The name Hanukkah is derived from the Hebrew word for “dedication.” When we move into new home, we celebrate with a ceremony called a hanukat habayit, a dedication ceremony. On Hanukkah, we mark the rededication of the House of God.
The apocryphal books of the Maccabees tell us: “For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah, his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication . . . should be observed . . . every year . . . for eight days.” (1 Maccabees 4:56-59) According to 2 Maccabees (10:6), “the Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the Feast of Booths.” Sukkot was the most important Jewish holiday during biblical times; in places the Torah calls it the Festival. The fall harvest festival of Thanksgiving was so important that our ancestors decided to offer thanks to God as soon as they regained the Temple.
The Talmud (a rabbinic text that contains teachings from the first century B.C.E. through the sixth century C.E.) relates a story about a little jug of oil, enough for only one day, burning for eight days until they could obtain more oil. The miracle is not that the oil lasted. The miracle is the faith of those who rededicated the Temple. The Jews who relit the menorah understood that they had insufficient oil. Still, they lit the lamps. They had great faith and believed that they were doing the right thing. They knew and we know that someone can kindle a fire and it will persist and inspire more light.
To what might we rededicate ourselves during this festival and, more generally, throughout the holiday season? The holiday of Hanukkah is about the struggle of a persecuted minority to win religious freedom. It is about respect for our differences. I suggest that we can rededicate ourselves to the ideals of a civil society that affords protections to minorities. All of us can benefit by conducting our societal business with respect and good will.
The stakes of healthy, respectful civil discourse are very high. This is a standard by which we can judge our society and our national culture, not just the personal behavior of individuals. Conflict is a normal part of human relationships. When we engage in conversation, privately or in a publicly, we must promote respect for one another even when we disagree. This will help us to find healthy ways to settle our differences.
Look at our political campaigns. I find it bizarre and perverse that candidates must agree to behave in ways that reflect civility. There are no longer basic human or social ground rules for political discourse. Civility is now a negotiated behavior. We should simply expect and require this modicum of decency of those who seek public office. Our system has gone awry.
There is no real discourse without concern for truth. When we assert facts without any knowledge, we are denying that truth plays any role in choosing what to believe or say. When we construct a reality with no concern for the facts, we destroy any possibility of conversation or dialogue.
We have the power and the ability to behave responsibly. This requires listening and giving the other person’s ideas honest consideration; too many people listen just enough to counter attack. It does not mean agreeing or refraining from criticism. It means offering our ideas with respect for other people as co-members of God’s creation. It means pointing out where the argument is wrong-headed or the assumptions are mistaken or irreconcilable. It does not mean making unfounded accusations against those who hold positions that are different from ours.
When we behave with respect and civility, we shape the structure of our human interactions. Our behavior affects everyone with whom we have contact. We are changed by our own behavior and we change our community and society. We often express frustration over our inability to make our lives and our society better. We feel powerless. Behaving with civility is a way to take control.
This is an important way for us to kindle the fire. When we share the light from our candle, we inspire others to rededicate themselves to civil discourse and together we bring more light into our interactions. In so doing, we derive benefit for ourselves and serve as wonderful, tangible, living examples for one another, especially for our youngsters.
Whatever your religious tradition, may you find a meaningful way during this holiday season to serve the greater good of our community. Happy Hanukkah to members of our community who are Jewish, Merry Christmas to our Christian neighbors, and a joyous Kwanzaa to our African-American neighbors. May all of our celebrations bring us to respect others and to act with kindness, so that we will bring blessings to our community.