12/19/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Hanukah: Still Fighting for Freedom After 2000 Years

Hanukah is undoubtedly the best known of all Jewish holidays. It owes this fame, in no small part, to its annual proximity to Christmas. Originally a relatively minor holiday in Jewish tradition, Hanukah has assumed greater and greater importance over time as Jews have felt a need to compete with the glamour and attraction created by the commercialization and heavy promotion of Christmas.

The two holidays have virtually nothing in common, except that they both utilize the symbolism of light. The Christmas trees and decorations that adorn Christian houses during this season are aglow with multicolored lights. And Hanukah is called "The Festival of Lights." But it is a light of a different nature, a light that represents a radically different reality from that of Christmas.

For Christianity, Christmas marks the moment when God adopted human form ("Jesus") in order to "come down" from Heaven and provide people with the means of solving the problems they had created on earth. The lights of Christmas represent the divine light that, according to Christianity, Jesus brought into the world by his birth, and the promise of the divine light of grace symbolized by his voluntary death.

For the Jewish people, the lights of Hanukah symbolize the light of religious freedom, a light that more than 2,000 years later is still threatened with being extinguised every day. The story of Hanukah is the story of the first recorded struggle for religious freedom, and day after day we see religious extremists doing their best to destroy that very freedom in country after country throughout the world. After that Hanukah victory was won, light itself became an important part of the story.

In the year 167 B.C.E. ("before the common era," the preferred Jewish equivalent of B.C., which Christians use to mean "before Christ") the Syrian emperor Antiochus decided to unify his kingdom by insisting that all people (including the Jews) adopt the same religion -- the worship of Zeus. He therefore forbade circumcision and the teaching or practice of Judaism upon pain of death, and ordered the Jews to abandon the Torah and publicly embrace paganism, the sacrifice of pigs, and bowing down to an idol of Zeus.

Many Jews were, indeed, put to death, but a Jew named Mattathias, along with his five sons, refused to accept this repressive policy of Jewish self-destruction, and took to the hills in revolt. They inspired others to join them in a struggle that lasted for three years. Though the Jews were vastly outnumbered by the Syrian army, when the torch of leadership passed upon the death of Mattathias to his son Judah the Maccabee ("the hammer" in Hebrew), Judah led a brilliant campaign, the first instance of guerrilla warfare which retook the road to Jerusalem and ultimately climaxed in the routing of the Syrian army and the liberation of Jerusalem itself and its sacred Temple.

Hanukah (which literally means "dedication") is the celebration of the victory of the Maccabees (as the entire rebel army came to be called) over the Syrian army, and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem to its rightful place as the center of Jewish worship.

According to the legend that grew up around this remarkable victory, when the Maccabees entered the Temple for the rededication, they could only find a small jar of oil with which to light the temple menorah (candelabrum), which should have lasted just one day. Miraculously, it lasted eight days, which allowed them to prepare enough ritually pure oil to complete the rededication ceremony and keep the sacred menorah lit continuously.

Jewish tradition has taught that in commemoration of this miracle of the lights, we celebrate Hanukah for eight days. Many modern scholars point out that this story was really fabricated long after the victory of the Maccabees to emphasize the role of the Divine in our deliverance from the plan of evil Antiochus, and to play down the importance of militarism and success by might of arms. Regardless of the literal truth of the legend of the oil that burned for eight days, the true miracle we celebrate on Hanukah is still the miracle of religious freedom.

Yes here we are thousands of years later in another time and place, in the midst of celebrating Hanukah which for me is not only about light but about dreams as well. This year dreams are needed more than ever. It's been a year filled with social pain and trauma experienced throughout America. There's been a loss of faith in justice, compassion and equality under the law that so many have felt with the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York and so many others of color have experienced being treated differently by those in authority simply because of the color of their skin or language they speak.

This Hanukah more than ever we must rekindle our collective dreams of a world at peace in which every single human being is able to celebrate and worship as they choose. We must not only dream of a world where dignity and respect is given to all, regardless of gender or color, language or culture, age or economic status, but each of us must be willing to take up that torch ourselves and do whatever we can to make a difference in the world. That, for me is the promise of Hanukah, the lights of freedom, the celebration of the triumph of human dignity and the recognition that black lives do matter, and that every human being is created with the same spark of divinity in the image of God and worthy of spiritual self-worth and respect. This year in particular, as we recall so many instances of brutality and violence here in America and across the world, may we rededicate ourselves to fulfilling the dreams we all share of a world where all children grow up knowing that what they say and what they do and who they are really matters.