12/19/2014 04:45 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

When President Obama Retold the Hanukkah Story

President Obama had a busy Tuesday. First he upended a 50-year U.S.-Cuban Cold War. Then he celebrated Hanukkah with 400 Jews from across the United States. He probably got a national security briefing somewhere in-between.

As I watched the president speak and light the Hanukkah candles last Tuesday, I felt immense gratitude. Gratitude for having been born in the United States; gratitude for the community in Highland Park, Illinois that I serve and represented at the White House; and gratitude for seeing the lesson of Hanukkah realized that very day, as American Alan Gross returned home from a Cuban prison.

In fact, the President delivered extraordinary remarks, drawing from the Hanukkah story to describe the day's events. Hanukkah, he reminded us, is not only a story about an ancient Jewish community. It is about the struggle of many around the world today.

Alan Gross, the President pointed out, found freedom the way the Jews 2200 years found it. He yearned for it, he worked for it, and he had a community who helped him along the way.

The Yearning

The Declaration of Independence proclaims we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Too many of us take this truth for granted. Rather than go on hunger strikes, as Alan Gross did for nine days, we choose not to eat in order to cleanse ourselves or lose weight. Rather than take advantage of our freedom to worship or vote, we stay home and watch TV.

Freedom is is like a fire that goes out if we do not tend it. Hanukkah reminds us to do so.

The Patience

Alan Gross sat in a jail for five years. Nelson Mandela did the same for 27 years. The ancient Israelites toiled in Egypt for 400 years. Freedom takes time.

And even when attained, it can be quickly lost. The heroes of Hanukkah, the Maccabees, gained freedom from the Assyrians, yet soon became tyrants themselves. True freedom needs long, hard work. It needs a culture to sustain it. It needs resilient leaders to protect it.

That patience is not easy. The Hebrew word for patience, sovlanut, also means suffering. Yet, that suffering is mitigated by community, by the presence of others.

The Community

Indeed, in his press conference, Alan Gross said to the Jewish community, "It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten. Your prayers and actions have been comforting, reassuring, and sustaining."

People prayed every day for his release. They asked the President and Congress every day for their support. Without community he would not be free.

The struggle for freedom not only lifts us up toward to God, who endowed us with freedom. It bends our hands and hearts toward one another. We do not struggle alone.

I was reminded of this truth close by a friend, a Catholic priest, who shared the following blessing with me on the eve of Hanukkah: "As darkness descends upon the land this night and you and yours light your light, may you be that light and bring that light to a too often dark world." To that we can only say Amen.

Get more insights on the eight miracles of Chanukah here.