The Hanukkah story begins with the Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ campaign to ensure all his subjects – including the Jews in the Land of Israel – shared the same culture and religion. Antiochus wanted to build a great Greek empire of conformity and uniformity, where everyone was united through their sameness. So he converted the Temple in Jerusalem into a shrine to Greek gods; he built gymnasia and amphitheaters to encourage Greek culture; and he outlawed Jewish practices like Torah study, Shabbat observance, and circumcision.
Of course, many Jews in the land of Israel didn’t need to be forced to become more Greek and less Jewish. They experienced Antiochus’ decrees as progressive reforms: Greek culture dominated the known world, and to many, including many Jews, Judaism seemed small, tribal, strange, and maybe even a little backward. “At long last, some real culture!” they exclaimed, as they rushed to buy Greek clothes, Greek idols, and Greek gym memberships.
Two thousand years later, not much has changed about human nature. Many of us long for nothing more than just to blend in, to just be like everyone else. We don’t want to stand out, have attention drawn to us, or feel like outsiders. We feel lacking and lonely, and long to belong. Some feed off these anxieties, telling us that we will only matter if we look a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way, or act a certain way; and, oh, by the way, we can sell you precisely those products you need to help you become part of the mainstream. In today’s world, advertisers barrage us with messages that subtly or overtly pressure us to be somebody other than ourselves, and many of us usually gladly give in to that pressure. As the poet E.E. Cummings once said, “The hardest challenge is to be yourself in a world where everyone is trying to make you be somebody else.”
Above all else, Hanukkah is a celebration of difference, a rejection of the temptations of conformity. We celebrate the fact that one man, one Jewish priest, named Matityahu, refused to simply blend in. So he launched a rebellion against the greatest power in the world to ensure his right to be different.
Hanukkah affirms that Matityahu’s act of resistance to conformity is a deeply Jewish posture. The Jewish people have never been the largest or most popular group on Earth: “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you -indeed, you are the smallest of peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). Our language, literature, commandments, and practices have always been unusual. Our Torah’s message of compassion, justice, and peace has always been countercultural. To be Jewish is to live on the margins, to be among other cultures but to stand apart from them. Jews embody the belief that God created each human being as distinctive. Embracing our differences, rather than chasing sameness, is thus a holy act.
As we light our candles tonight, we ignite the Matityahu inside all of us, and celebrate the unique light that each of us brings to the world.