From the song Ma’oz Tzur
אָז אֶגְמֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ
Then I shall complete with a song of hymn, the dedication of the Altar.
The essence of Hanukkah is in the name of the holiday. Translating in English to “dedication,” Hanukkah centers around the commemoration of a new altar in the Temple, dedicated on the 25th of Kislev in the year 167 BCE, that replaced the original altar which was profaned by the Greeks. The Hanukkah candles we light, the ones lit in this season for nearly 2200 years, are a powerful expression of the fearlessness with which we can and will rebuild.
To the Jews who lived through the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70ce, it must have been a terrible thing to realize that the Greek’s mere desecration of the Temple two hundred and forty years earlier was only a prequel. To profane the Holy Temple was unthinkable, but to destroy it altogether must have been unimaginable. Could this be rebuilt? To the Jews who lived through the middle ages, the ones who suffered persecution, expulsion, pogroms, even martyrdom, to those who lived through the terror of the Holocaust, what did the Hanukkah candles mean to them? Could this be rebuilt?
Our national traumas did not start with Hanukkah. But this final holiday adopted by Israel, taken on at a very late stage in our national development, holds the key that kept the Jewish people alive through the most painful moments of these past twenty-two hundred years. As Jews, we have seen many different kinds of ruins: some physical, some spiritual, some emotional, and when faced with these ruins we have two choices. We can either clean up the rubble, rebuild, and dedicate to God a new moment, a new altar, a new chapter. Or, we can give up. We haven’t lit Hanukkah candles for over two thousand years because we give up. And we don’t give up because for over two thousand years we have lit the lights of Hanukkah.