D’var Torah: Two Different Lessons of Hanukkah

As a child, I was taught that Hanukkah was a triumph of the Israelites over the Greeks. It is a classic underdog story that ends with the lighting of the menorah in the rededicated Temple. We win (and eat latkes)! As I grew older and studied more deeply, I developed a more sophisticated view of this story. I learned that in many ways the story of Hanukkah was an internal struggle between Hellenized Jews and the more fundamentalist Maccabees. There is tragedy and any political victory was short-lived.

Are we wrong to tell a more simplified tale to young people? Should we tell the more nuanced version that we understand as adults? Which is the correct educational approach?

This is a tough question. There is value in both versions of Hanukkah. The concept of never giving up what you believe, the possibility that you can beat the odds and the optimism of lighting the candles are all important. That story inspired Jews who faced very difficult times throughout the ages.

The more sophisticated story is also instructive. The world impacts us and we have to make choices. How much we assimilate and how much we remain separate have been challenges for Jews when they have been welcomed into a society. In-fighting among Jews has caused us tremendous pain and has set us back. Can we respectfully disagree with one another and still maintain a feeling of Peoplehood?

At camp we try to present many challenging topics through different lenses, depending on the age and maturity of our campers. It can be challenging to welcome diverse views on how we approach personal relationships and gender roles and how we build a connection to Israel. Deciding when to introduce more difficult topics is something we examine carefully. As our campers enter late middle school and high school, we encourage our staff members to address difficult topics in an engaging and intellectually honest way. We are not afraid to hear a range of views. At the same time, we want to make sure that we create a community that feels safe and welcoming and that adults are available to our campers to process issues that concern them.

As we light our menorahs this Hanukkah, I take to heart the lessons of the seemingly conflicting lessons of the Hanukkah story. I realize that now, more than ever, we need to build inclusive Jewish communities that are open to all and that respect everyone. I also appreciate the optimism of commemorating the miracle that allowed us to overcome insurmountable odds. Hanukkah Sameach!