Hanukkah: Honoring the Work We’ve Done

Rabbi Schaefer

Hanukkah means dedication. The name for this festival comes from the actions of the Maccabees after they defeated the Greeks. After finding the temple in ruins, the Maccabees clean it up and rededicate the temple by lighting the menorah.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual significance of Hanukkah and why we have a holiday connected to dedication at this time of year. To fully appreciate it, I think it’s important to zoom out and understand the cycle of the Jewish year…

In the early fall, we practice teshuvah, as we mark the new year with Rosh Hashanah,Yom Kippur, and the High Holy Days. Teshuvah is about turning or returning, as we repent, repair our relationships, and renew our covenants. In the spring, we reflect on the themes of redemption, liberation, and freedom as we celebrate Passover and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. Forty-nine days later, we open ourselves to revelation, as we transport ourselves to the base of Mt. Sinai for Shavuot. Every year we repeat this cycle: Teshuvah, Redemption, and Revelation.

But when I imagine the Jewish calendar spatially, it feels like there is something missing. There is a long time between Simchat Torah in the fall, which marks the end of the High Holy Days with joyous celebration, and Passover in the spring. So what is missing?

I think part of the answer lies in Hanukkah. How can dedication help us go from teshuvah to redemption?

Let me start by saying what dedication is not. I don’t think that dedication is about setting new goals. It can be very confusing as an American Jew at this time of year. A few months after Rosh Hashanah, we get another new year to celebrate. But spiritually, now is not the time for setting new goals.

Dedication is about marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another. We dedicate a book or a song or a victory to someone after we complete it. We dedicate a building or public space after we’ve finished one phase of the work – usually the messy, behind-the-scenes stuff – and we’re ready to launch the next phase – when we’re open and ready to share. Hanukkah occurs, not at the time of the year when the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, but at the end of the olive harvest in Israel. Hanukkah connected us to the earth, allowed us to mark the completion of one phase of our work, and dedicate the work we’d done to a higher purpose.

So maybe the question to ask is, what are we completing? What work have we done that we can dedicate to a higher purpose? What behind the scenes work are we ready to share with a wider audience?

Of course, the Maccabees didn’t dedicate the temple, they re-dedicated it. Every year we complete the cycle around a spiral staircase that goes deeper and deeper into our hearts and souls. In some ways, it is the same journey, but always, it is a little different. In 5780, as we travel the road from teshuvah to redemption, may we pause to honor the work we’ve done and (re)dedicate it to something bigger than ourselves.