Hanukkah may not be everyone’s favorite Jewish holiday, but I’m sure it ranks among everyone’s top two or three. And this is easy to understand. It’s a happy time, usually occurring when most other people are celebrating the season. And the fact that we give each other Hanukkah presents doesn’t hurt either!
Every year, I am asked many times what does Hanukkah celebrate. Of course, the people asking don’t want a long answer explaining the historical context of the victory of the Maccabees. They want a sound bite. So I give them one: The holiday celebrates the miracle of how a little jar of oil, enough to last only for one day, lasted for eight. That’s why we light candles on all eight nights of the holiday.
I’d like to tweak that time-honored answer to give the holiday some meaning that pertains to my work in the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. The legend of the jar of oil symbolizes a miracle, but not just the one that occurred when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple. The legend of the oil symbolizes the miracle of the Jewish people’s survival. Small, insignificant, without a homeland until the 20th century, unable to defend ourselves against attacks, the Jewish people have been able to survive. It’s so improbable that it must be a miracle; there’s no other way to explain it.
Hanukkah symbolizes another miracle which I see when I’m with our residents. To be sure, they’re in the winter of their lives. They know that they have, at most, a few years left. And yet, the care which we provide allows them to shine, like the Hanukkah candles:
This year, when we light our Hanukkah candles, let’s pause to reflect on the various ways each of us can bring brightness to the lives of the senior citizens who live near us. And let us give thanks to God for performing miracles for our ancestors at this season in ancient days, and in our days, too.
Rabbi James Michaels, D.Min.
Professor of Jewish Studies
Rabbi Michaels has had a distinguished career as a pulpit rabbi and health care chaplain with roots in the academic community. Born in Auburn, NY, he received his BA from Cornell University in 1968, and was ordained and received his MA from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1974. Immediately after ordination, he pursued graduate education in Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York, and then entered the pulpit rabbinate. Rabbi Michaels has served in pulpits in Whitestone, NY, Wilkes-Barre, PA, and Flint, MI; throughout those years, he also worked as a health care chaplain at Bronx Psychiatric Center and with the Veterans Administration. (Read Rabbi Michaels' complete GTF Faculty Profile.)
Read an interview with Rabbi James Michaels and Rabbi Cary Kozberg, who co-authored the new book, Flourishing In The Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Residential Care.