The many lessons of Chanukah

The holiday can teach us about standing up for our identity, but also about finding the balance between segregating ourselves and playing a larger role in secular society.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin

Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal

Rabbi Grushcow: A few years ago, Chanukah coincided with American Thanksgiving. This year, it begins on Christmas Eve. It’s said that Jewish holidays are always early or late, but never on time!

Despite these overlaps, Chanukah is based on a story of Jewish uniqueness, and the willingness to stand up for one’s identity at any cost. I’m fascinated by the history of the holiday, and how it shifted from its original focus on political resistance to the theme of spiritual endurance.

I love how this story took on new life with the founding of the State of Israel, when our people were searching for heroes. And I love the ancient dispute of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai about whether we should start with eight lights on the first night and light one less candle every subsequent night (Shammai) or start with one and go up (Hillel). The latter approach is the one we use, because we always want to increase holiness and hope.

What are some of your favourite Chanukah teachings and traditions?

Rabbi Korobkin: My favourite Chanukah teaching is based on the fact that we invariably read the Torah portions about Joseph’s sale into slavery during this holiday. While at first glance, there seems to be no connection between the two stories, which are separated by at least 1,500 years, I always find uncanny parallels.

The Joseph story teaches us that different approaches exist within Judaism. Joseph’s story, as he rose to become viceroy of a foreign kingdom, shows that, at times, Jews have a role to play within secular society. Jews must often adapt to our parent (in Joseph’s case, Egyptian) culture, speak the same language and wear the same clothes. The message is that our Judaism will sometimes assume a more contemporary garb with which he can sanctify God among the nations.

But at other times – especially when there is an active effort by the parent culture to suppress or fundamentally alter Judaism – Jews must segregate ourselves and resist the foreign gods around us. This was the divide between Joseph and his brothers. And in this sense, the Hasmoneans played the role of Joseph’s brothers many centuries later when they fought against the Greeks.

Today, both approaches are embraced by different factions within our people, to varying degrees. There will always be room at the Jewish family table for both the Josephs and the brothers.

Rabbi Grushcow: I like your image of how there is always room at the table. As I write this, I’m on a bus back from Ottawa, where I was at a chanukiyah lighting (albeit a little early) with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with the leaders of Canada’s other political parties, numerous politicians, Jewish communal leaders and rabbis of all different denominations. We are fortunate to live in a time when the broader culture embraces us and shares in our celebrations. I’m proud to live in a country that embraces diversity as a strength.

I agree that there are different approaches to Jewish identity and practice, based on different contexts. At the same time, I agree with my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who says that we are always simultaneously “defining in” and “defining out” – that is, deciding what we share with the broader culture, and determining where we stand apart. It’s not an either/or. It’s a spectrum.

Joseph never let go of his difference, and the Maccabees shared in a Hellenized world. In our day, the boundaries between “us” and “them” are blurred, usually for good. Chanukah encourages us to ask where we can make our unique contribution, and how we can share our light with the world.

Rabbi Korobkin: And I write this while on a bus driving through the holy city of Hebron. The international community embraces the Jew with one arm while recoiling when we become too strong in realizing our homeland’s manifest destiny. On the one hand, we’ve arrived, but on the other hand, we still have a ways to go.

Ultimately, the Torah describes us as a solitary nation, destined to remain distinct and separate. Chanukah celebrates that distinction. So while we gratefully celebrate with others in our wonderfully diverse Canada, we also remember that the lights of our menorah represent our uniqueness, the key to our centuries-long survival.