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Chanukah greetings

Last updated: 2004-12-07

Dr Jonathan Sacks

Dr Jonathan Sacks

Message given by Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks on BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day

Tonight we begin to celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. And though its history goes way back, to two centuries before the birth of Christianity, I think it has a message for today.

What happened was that Israel came under the empire of Alexander the Great, and one particular leader, Antiochus IV, decided to force the pace of Hellenisation, forbidding Jews to practice their religion and setting up in the Temple in Jerusalem a statue of Zeus Olympus.

This was all too much, and a group of Jews, the Maccabees, fought for their religious freedom, winning a stunning victory against the most powerful army of the ancient world. After three years they reconquered Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. And that’s what Hanukkah means – rededication. It was one of the most stunning military achievements of the ancient world.

The thing was, though, that the military victory didn’t last that long.  Within a century, Israel was once again under foreign rule, this time the Romans.  140 years later, Jerusalem was defeated and the Temple lay in ruins.  There were many Jews who felt there was just no point in celebrating Hanukah any more. But it was then that one small detail of the original victory made the difference.  It was so insignificant that it didn’t make the news at the time.

When the Maccabees came to rededicate the Temple, they found a single cruise of oil with the seal of the High Priest still intact.  With it they were able to relight the temple candelabrum, the menorah. Miraculously it burned for eight days, not one, which is why to this day we light lights for eight days. It became a symbol of hope that something would always survive any catastrophe and allow us to begin again.  That symbol of the human spirit gave Jews the strength to survive the next 2000 years.

2004 has not been an easy year.  Iraq is only one of many countries – including the former Soviet Union, and the former Yugoslavia, where the struggle for freedom seemed to promise so much, only to deteriorate into ethnic conflict, violence and terror. Military victories are often quick; but the road to freedom is painfully slow, and it’s all too easy to lose heart. What Hanukkah tells us is that what lasts isn’t what makes the news at the time. It’s the candle of hope kept alive in people’s hearts. There’s nothing logical about hope; no proof that tomorrow will be better than today; but it’s real, it changes lives, and sustains the courage we need to build a better world.