More than a millennia ago, in a small country savaged by changing leadership and war, there dwelt the Jewish nation. Whilst the Egyptians, Greeks and Syrians fought around them, they clung to their G-d and the Holy Temple, serving Him with all their hearts.
However, slowly but increasingly, under foreign leadership, Greek influences began to infiltrate into their lives. The heavy emphasis the Greeks placed on the human body, theaters and entertainment was a culture that left no room for a G-d and a spiritual life, and unfortunately, not every Jew was strong enough to withstand its temptations. Yet those who remained faithful to their G-d were still seen as a threat by the ruling emperor Antiochus, who eventually went so far as to ban the Jews from keeping a Jewish lifestyle and performing their most intrinsic and defining commandments.
Yet this was no Holocaust; it was not a quest for the blood of the Jews, rather it was their souls that the Greeks wanted. The Jews at the time could very easily have adapted their lifestyle, at least externally, to fit into the Greek culture. Yet instead they chose to fight for their beliefs, to stand up for their religion, and to risk death by waging war on those who wished to extinguish their soul, their light.
Their fight is the essence of the holiday of this month. Chanuka, the festival of lights, declares the fight for our G-d and his Torah, for the spark inside each and every Jewish soul, and the readiness to sacrifice ourselves for our beliefs. King Solomon tells us that 'The soul of man is G-d's candle.' Each Jewish soul is a light that can illuminate the entire world; all we have to do is to ignite the spark.
Unsurprisingly, it was in this month too that the Mishkan - the tabernacle, was completed. This was the sanctuary where Jews brought sacrifices to G-d, and as a result brought His light into the world. And although we no longer have the tabernacle or even the temple, we can still create this same relationship with G-d nowadays, serving as a conduit to spread His light to the world. This is depicted in the words of a beautiful song, based on a passage by Rabbi Eliezer Azikri a 16th-century Rabbi:
‘In my heart I will build a sanctuary to glorify God's honor. And in the sanctuary, I will place an altar... And as a sacrifice I will offer to G-d my soul, my own unique soul.’
Ultimately, the way to light up our world, and to fan that tiny spark into a powerful flame is through sacrifice, through giving up those things that we feel are a part of us, of our identity. When we step out of our comfort zone, when we lose our complacency, and we give up for our religion the things that we hold dear, things that we can’t imagine living without, then that is what feeds our spark, our soul.
Having a strong religious identity and feeling Jewish are beautiful things. Yet they are also easy things. And when something is too easy, when it is almost effortless, then we know that we are doing something wrong. Because the zodiac symbol of this month, the Sagittarius, or archer, teaches us that we need to exert ourselves to move forwards. If you don’t pull the bow back until your arm aches and the sweat runs down your cheeks, then your arrow will fall to the ground. In a world where we sometimes give away our souls on a silver platter, we cannot forget that the harder we work on our religion and connection to G-d, and the more sacrifices we make, the further we will fly. For mortals though we are, we nevertheless have wings.