A Good Time for the Hanukkah Message

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Orthodox rabbi and vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership Brad Hirschfield says Hanukkah brings a hopeful message at the end of a year of terrible natural disasters and war: Miracles can happen.


During this week of Hanukkah celebrations, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield considers the meaning of that holiday.


We need Hanukkah this year more than we have in a long time. It's been a year punctuated by a tsunami in South Asia, an ongoing conflict in Iraq, Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast and shrinking confidence in our own elected officials at home. Now is the time to remember that great things can come at the most unexpected times and in the most unusual ways. That's what Hanukkah's all about, and that's probably why it's one of the two most popular Jewish holidays.

Contrary what some people believe, Hanukkah is not a minor holiday. To be sure, the events of the Hanukkah story postdate the Hebrew Bible. But that does not make them any less significant. Contemporary Judaism is as much a product of the rabbis who came after the Bible as it is of the characters of the Old Testament. After all, Jews no longer sacrifice animals, practice polygamy or live exclusively in the land of Israel as they did in biblical times.

Hanukkah is important to us today not because of the historical details surrounding the military victory of a rebel Jewish army seeking political and religious freedom in 165 before the Common Era. In the coldest, darkest time of the year, we all need a story in which a small container of oil burns longer and brighter than anyone can possibly imagine, a story in which people who know that same oil could not last more than a day, decide to light it anyway. Why? Because they believed in the oil? Because they believed in God? Because they believed in themselves? Probably a bit of each. That's what miracles are all about.

This year, as many of us are tempted to despair by events in the world around us, we need to believe in miracles like that. Whether we are Jewish or not, whether we really believe in miracles or not, now is the time to remind ourselves and each other that a small reservoir can hold more than we might ever imagine, and allow ourselves to trust in that knowledge. We need to remind ourselves, and especially our children, that inside little containers, there is great stuff waiting to get out.

Whether we access these ideas through the story of a little baby born in a manger or the Hanukkah tale of the little vial of oil, these are big lessons which deserve to be celebrated now and throughout the year. They remind us that there is light, even when we see only darkness, love even when we feel only hate and possibility even when we think we stand before the impossible.

INSKEEP: Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. If you'd like to hear stories and music inspired by Hanukkah, you can visit npr.org.


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