Hanukkah is a festival when Jews around the world celebrate their victory in the fight for religious freedom more than 2,000 years ago. It is the story of changemakers in a persecuted faith who fought their conquerors to ensure the right to practice their faith.
More than that, Hanukkah is the story of a miracle, the lighting of a candle of religious freedom that has stayed ablaze for millennia whose glow was enshrined as one of America’s founding principles. It’s not only a sacred memory for the Jewish people, but it also represents a timeless story of the quest for religious freedom and those who laid down their lives to protect it.
On the first night of Hanukkah, families gather to light a candle on an eight-branch menorah. Each sundown, families light an additional candle until finally, the whole menorah blazes through the night. With the lighting of the Menorah each year, the light of religious freedom prevails over tyranny and stands in open display on hundreds of thousands of windows as a testament to the powers of faith and religious freedom.
Hanukkah commemorates Judah Maccabee who led a band of Jewish warriors to fight against Greco-Syrian conquerors who ransacked and desecrated the Jews’ holy temple in Jerusalem. The Greco-Syrians led by King Antiochus IV tore Jewish symbols from the temple and in their place forcefully replaced Jewish religious practices and identity with Hellenistic culture, best embodied by the statue of Zeus which had been installed in the middle of the temple. Around the year 164 BCE, Judah Maccabee and his followers, the Maccabees, decided to take a stand. They successfully reclaimed their temple, stood up to their persecutors, and with one small vial of oil, only enough for one day, rekindled the temple’s holy lamp for eight days – a miracle of miracles.
The importance of the Hanukkah story goes beyond Judaism for those living in the free world. Ancient Jews, vilified, tortured and even murdered for their religious beliefs and practice, rose up against their oppressors to reclaim their freedom to worship and observe their traditions. They faced the same struggle as Yazidi Christians in the Middle East, people of faith in Communist China and countless others who are persecuted every day by their governments for daring to embrace their religious traditions.
The Hanukkah story also strongly mirrors the vision of America’s founders who, in drafting the Constitution, made religious freedom the law of the land. The importance of this principle to our country’s founders can best be found in George Washington’s letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in which he wrote, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
America’s embrace of religious freedom has made it a land where Jews and other religious minorities have been able to prosper. And for that, on the first night of Hanukkah, we should all light a candle for religious freedom.