Local Rabbis Offer Their Perspectives on Chanukah

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This season, Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is happening as the Israel-Hamas war continues to rage on. It also comes more than two months after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel that killed at least 1,200 people and more than 200 were taken hostage. The death toll in Gaza has climbed to over 17,000.

Chanukah celebrates the triumph of a band of rebel Jews known as the Maccabees in reclaiming the Temple in Jerusalem from the Greek-Syrians in 165 B.C.E. The Maccabees were able to get back the Temple and they wanted to rededicate it. They only had enough oil for one night and by a miracle it lasted eight nights, hence the eight nights of Chanukah.

Courtesy of Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt spoke to his congregants at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative synagogue in Potomac, last weekend about the relevance of the story of Chanukah at a time when Israel is at war. He also led a public menorah lighting at the governor’s mansion in Annapolis.

“The story of Chanukah resonates even more strongly than other times,” Weinblatt said. “And I think this year is certainly one of those times.”

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“Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees against forces that were much greater than them. Think of all that Israel is up against in terms of Iran and all its proxies – Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria – wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the map. And so, just as the Maccabees bravely resisted the efforts to eradicate Judaism and the Jewish people, today, Israel finds itself in a very similar kind of a struggle. We’re celebrating the dedication of the Jewish people to maintain their faith.”

Weinblatt also sees parallels to the Maccabees fighting against the temptation to forego their religion and assimilate into the greater cultural group. “That’s really an ongoing challenge that the Jewish people have always had to face, whether it’s the lure of the surrounding society or in the case of Hamas, which is trying to wipe out the Jewish presence in the land of Israel. The cause that the Maccabees fought for are battles that are still being waged today.”

Courtesy of Rabbi Uri Topolosky

Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Kehilat Pardes – The Rock Creek Synagogue in Rockville just returned from Israel. There he experienced the power of Chanukah, which he conveyed to congregants at the modern Orthodox congregation.

“It is the beauty of the light and the teaching that when you kindle one light to the next light, it doesn’t take anything away from the first light. The light simply expands.”

The most profound thing he witnessed is “civil society in Israel, extending their light to each other. It is amazing to watch people step up to care for each other in a time of war, to care for the families of the hostages, to care for families who have children in the army, to care for those who have fallen, to care for those who have lost loved ones to terror.

“Just to see that light of kindness and caring expand and extend throughout civil society is inspiring and uplifting and gives me hope in a time of great darkness,” Topolosky said. “As we are lighting each of these candles, one of the meditations that I’m inviting people to contemplate is how they can expand their heart wider and wider and wider to hold more and more and more than we think we’re capable of holding. That’s the miracle of the light that it expands and extends beyond what we thought it was capable of.”

Courtesy of Rabbi Charles Feinberg

Rabbis over the centuries took a longer view on Chanukah, said Rabbi Charles Feinberg, executive director emeritus at Interfaith Action for Human Rights, “that somehow even in darkness, there was a light, and the light came from the unity of the people and their faith that ultimately redemption would come to the Jewish people … So the lesson from Chanukah is despair over the immediate events. But ultimately our faith will endure and overcome the challenges that we face today.”

“What’s existential about the war in Israel is how they’re going to live with the Palestinians. That’s the issue,” Feinberg said. “I think ultimately, they can live with the Palestinians. The challenge is how to share the land with the Palestinians who have a claim to it as well. Sadly, all this terrible destruction is putting the issue at the forefront.”

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.

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