Chanukah begins in just a few days. The Festival of Lights celebrates the victory by the Maccabees over the forces of the Greek King Antiochus IV. Antiochus had outlawed Jewish religious practices and introduced pagan worship into the Temple in Jerusalem in an effort to force assimilation upon the Jews of the land of Israel.
Judah Maccabee and his brothers launched their rebellion in 167 BCE to eliminate the anti-Jewish edicts and restore proper worship to the Temple. After three years of fighting, they recaptured Jerusalem. Upon entering the precincts of the Holy Temple, they found that it was defiled beyond use. As quickly as possible, the Maccabees cleaned the Temple and purified its sacred furnishings so that they could reinstitute daily worship according to the Torah’s prescriptions.
To commemorate their victory, the Maccabees established an eight-day holiday. It came to be known as Chanukah, which means “dedication.” The word Chanukah is related to the word chinukh, meaning “education.” Typically, when we think about “education,” we think of books, tests, classrooms, and school. Our celebration of Chanukah, however, emphasizes a different kind of learning.
The central mitzvah of the holiday is lighting the menorah, ideally in a location that is visible to the public. Illuminated by the lights, we sing songs, eat latkes, and play Dreidel. Whenever possible, we observe Chanukah together—whether at home with friends and family, as guests at someone else’s home, or at a community celebration. All of these activities create sensory-infused memories that are far more powerful than anything that can be taught in a classroom. After all, we tend to remember through our emotions—not our intellect.
At the original Chanukah, when the tired Maccabean soldiers saw the Menorah being relit for the first time, they must have experienced strong emotions. As they stood side by side, they saw the glow of the flames reflecting on each other’s faces. They considered the many miracles they had just witnessed. Feelings of joy, relief, and gratitude mixed with sadness as they recalled fallen comrades.
Chanukah, as the holiday of (re)dedication, invites us to embrace chinukh by creating lasting emotional experiences in our own day. Ramah Galim embodies this kind of chinukh. Campers (chanikhim – also from the same root word) learn about Judaism through emotionally rich experiences that will last a lifetime.
What feelings will we experience this year as we bask in the light of the Chanukah flames? Which miracles will we recall? What memories will we create?
Rabbi Josh Berkenwald in the rabbi and dynamic leader of Congregation Sinai in San Jose, CA.