Written by Rabbi Mark Goldsmith
Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s (z’’l) relating of his Chanukkah experience with his father has passed into the status of a modern midrash on the real meaning this festival. The story is well known but like all midrashim always bears a re-telling.
Hugo Gryn writes that as a child in Auschwitz in block 4, he and his father and the Jewish prisoners in his barracks, in anticipation of Hanukkah, decided to set aside some of their margarine rations to fuel a makeshift menorah to celebrate the holiday. They gathered bits of wood and metal and shaped them into light holders. It was Hugo’s job to take apart an abandoned prison cap and fashion wicks from its threads. Finally, the first night of Chanukah arrived, and the prisoners in block 4 gathered around the two melted down portions of the margarine, one for the shamash and one for the first night. As they were saying the blessing thanking God for the miracles God performed for the Jewish people in the past, Hugo tried to light the wicks but the margarine only sputtered and sparked, refusing to light. Hugo remembers angrily turning on his father about the refusal of the margarine to light. What a waste of precious calories it was. And he remembers his father’s sage reply. He said, “Don’t be so angry, my son. You know that this festival celebrates the victory of the spirit over tyranny and might. You and I have had to go once for over a week without proper food. And another time we survived almost three days without water. But you cannot live three minutes without hope!”
Hope, against all the odds, is the core of the meaning of Chanukkah. That is why we light the candles to represent eight days of light when we might have had only one. The hope – Hatikvah – is the theme of the Israeli national anthem.
On this festival of Chanukkah we hope for Israel at peace with Gaza and the West Bank. We hope for the end of Hamas as a terrorist organisation and peace for all of the peoples of Israel. We hope for Ukraine prevailing against Russia and regaining her territory from the invaders, so that Ukrainians can again live in peace. We hope for a world where peace and coexistence prevails over populism and prejudice.
From where we stand at the beginning of December this looks no more likely than the victory of the Maccabees over the Greek empire did in the year 167CE, but the Maccabees did prevail. We celebrate the light that shines on from this restoration of Judaism in Israel every year since.
We Jews must have hope even when the odds seem stacked against us all.