There is no tractate of the Talmud that explains the entire story of Chanukah. In fact, from the sound of the question above, "Mai Chanukah/What is Chanukah?," someone in the ancient academy wasn’t sure what it was, or possibly, what it meant. Perhaps by the time the Rabbis recorded this discussion, nearly 700 years after the actual events, the students in the academy were wondering how their ancestors did something unprecedented, as with Purim, they created a holiday on their own.
Can we imagine our calendar without it? Some Jews could.
Like our ancestral parent Jacob who runs from Esau’s wrath and revenge, a group of Jews escaped from the Holy Land during the time Antiochus and his forces were persecuting the Jewish people.
According to Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, three ships of Jews escaping the persecutions sailed south from Eilat. They turned east around the Arabian Peninsula and continued east. They approached the shores of India and there collided with rock formations in the water. Out of hundreds who had escaped, only 14 floated to shore. They lingered there and over the next days the ocean pushed out many of their compatriots who lost their lives. They buried their fellow Jews there and wandered into the jungle, an unknown territory to where they found a village, and the villagers warmly welcomed them. That cemetery is still there today.
Nearly 2,000 years later, a Jewish businessman working for the Dutch East India Company was in that territory for the firm. When he approach the locals, he began to describe his personal needs during his two to three week stay – regarding Shabbat, and food, and all the locals said, “Sure, we already know these things.” How did they know? They described their neighbors who also followed these practices. The man went to meet the neighbors. They did indeed know about Shabbat. They did know about Kosher even though they could not remember how to perform the slaughter properly anymore. They only remembered 2 words of their ancient language, ‘Shema Yisrael’. They called themselves, ‘Bnai Yisrael’, the Children of Israel. The businessman asked them about their religious calendar, and they listed all the holidays – except one.
They listed all the holidays except Chanukah.
Because they left the Holy Land before the struggle was over, before fellow Jews declared the holiday after the victory and rededication of the Temple.
The Bnai Yisrael eventually migrated to the east where they reunited with their fellow Jews, and now there are 90,000 Bnai Yisrael in the State of Israel, and only some 5,000 Jews left in India, and none younger than 42 years old. But it’s worth mentioning that in southern India, though there are no longer school children in any school in that region – they do not give exams on the Jewish holidays in recognition of the contributions, the honor and the dignity the Jewish community brought to the country.
Could we imagine our winters without Chanukah without the lights, the games, the food, and songs?
More than that, could we imagine our Jewish story without the courage of Matityahu and his sons?
The Bnai Yisrael did not know the outcome. They did not know we won out in the end and held onto our sovereignty in the Land for 80 years afterwards.
Jacob also does not know the end of his story. We read this week; “Vayidar Yakov neder…Jacob makes a vow, saying, if God protects me on this journey I am making…”
If God protects me…
It sounds like Jacob is not sure God will be there along the way. It sounds as though Jacob needs reassurance.
Jacob wants to know God is really there.
The Bnai Yisrael, as Rabbi Tokayer explains, had no contact with other Jews for 2,000 years. They survived that long on their ancient memories and two Hebrew words, “Shema Yisrael”.
We have plenty of Hebrew and other words to support our Jewish identity. We have plenty of holidays, events, books, resources and more – far more than the Bnai Yisrael had.
And so what can we learn from them, and from our ancestor Jacob (who also has little to nothing with him on his journey)?
First, Judaism is not a religion about how much do we know or not know. Level of knowledge is not the metric by which we should evaluate ourselves.
Next, Judaism at its core teaches that life is sacred and valuable; that each breath we take is a blessing of revitalizing energy that we can use to do one more mitzvah. Each soul is valuable, and while we may not all agree and get along, we can still see those with whom we disagree as having a soul and something to contribute to this world.
And then Judaism teaches us that time is not an illusion, and time, like life, is sacred and valuable. Shabbat reminds us of this fact as we choose to make one day different to show that, maybe, all other days could be different, too, that all other days could be filled with prayer, community, and an appreciation of the creation that is us and that surrounds us but that, in our daily running, we do not always see.
We come here on Shabbat to reaffirm these central beliefs of our faith but also to reaffirm belief in ourselves – that each of us is a leader who can carry the message, no matter how difficult the road is. Like Jacob, the Maccabbees, and the Bnai Yisrael, we’re always walking uphill but happily so, singing the praises of the Creator who enables us each day to have a chance to bring our vision of kedushah, holiness, to our community and even to the furthest reaches of the globe.