This Week's Word

By This Week's Word
Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda. He is president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. His full sermon is at

Tomorrow night, Dec. 21, which corresponds to the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, marks the first night of Hanukkah. Some rabbis have cynically commented that the popularity of Hanukkah is Jews' attempt to copy their gentile neighbors' observance of Christmas.

But motivations for observance notwithstanding, just as serious Christians try hard to put the Christ back into Christmas, Jews, too, must drill down to discover the power of the Hanukkah message. They will discover a message as central to Jewish teaching as any in our tradition.

It is also a message desperately needed in the world.

In 169, Antiochus Epiphanies, king of Syria, devastated Jerusalem, massacring thousands of Jews and desecrating Judaism's holiest shrine, the Temple in Jerusalem.

Under the military leadership of Judah Maccabee, Israel gradually rallied against Antiochus. On the 25th day of Kislev, the Maccabees retook Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple for Jewish worship. The Hebrew word Hanukkah literally means ''dedication.''

The custom of celebrating eight days of Hanukkah stems from the belief that the small amount of oil available to rekindle the Temple's menorah (sacred lamp) burned for eight days, even though the amount of oil was barely sufficient for one.

Whether one believes literally in the miracle of the high-octane oil, on a spiritual level Hanukkah is about a much bigger miracle. It is the miracle of faith conquering fear, of the few overcoming the many, of liberty winning out over oppression.

Every year, Hanukkah comes close to Human Rights Day, which was celebrated this year on Dec. 10. We ignore the day at our peril.

Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are principles at the core of democracy: the right to life, liberty and security of person; equal justice before the law; protection against cruel and degrading forms of punishment; freedom of thought, conscience and religious practice.

These principles are also at the core of Judaism. Genesis 1:27 articulates the principle that every human being is made in the image of God (tzelem elohim).

I believe that tzelem elohim is the most radical teaching in the Torah. If we internalized the message in our own behavior and got societies and nation-states to abide by it, we would be well on our way to the Messianic era. But we are far from that place!

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