Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, starts late this year—not until Dec. 24. (The Jewish holidays, tied to the lunar Hebrew calendar, always seem to be either early or late—never on time.) But on Wednesday, Barack and Michelle Obama hosted their final Hanukkah party at the White House, and the president shared a reflection on the meaning of the holiday with his guests. His words were stunning and brought tears to my eyes.
In this harrowing moment, when religious minorities, especially Jews and Muslims, are the open targets of a campaign of hatred instigated by the president-elect, Obama’s message means so much to me, and I hope to you as well. It’s hard to know which parts to excerpt, but these passages moved me greatly:
This is the season that we appreciate the many miracles, large and small, that have graced our lives throughout generations, and to recognize that the most meaningful among them is our freedom. The first chapter of the Hanukkah story was written 22 centuries ago, when rulers banned religious rituals and persecuted Jews who dared to observe their faith. Which is why today we are asked not only to light the menorah, but to proudly display it—to publicize the mitzvah. […]
Everybody in America can understand the spirit of this tradition. Proudly practicing our religion, whatever it might be—and defending the rights of others to do the same—that's our common creed. That's what families from coast to coast confirm when they place their menorah in the window—not to share the candles' glow with just your family, but also with your community and with your neighbors.
The story of Hanukkah, the story of the Jewish people, the story of perseverance—these are one and the same. Elie Wiesel taught us that lesson probably better than just about anybody. In one of his memories of the Holocaust, Elie watched a fellow prisoner trade his daily ration of bread for some simple materials with which to piece together a makeshift menorah. And he wrote that he couldn't believe the sacrifices this man was making to observe the holidays. A stunned Elie asked him, "Hanukkah in Auschwitz?" And the man replied, "Especially in Auschwitz." [...]
Through centuries of exile and persecution, and even the genocide of families like the Wiesels endured, the Hanukkah candles have been kindled. Each wick an answer to the wicked. Each light a signal to the world that yours is an inextinguishable faith.
Jewish leaders from the Maccabees to the Wiesels, to the college students who proudly sing Hebrew songs on campus, reaffirm our belief that light still drives out darkness, and freedom still needs fighters.Each wick an answer to the wicked. So they have been for two thousand years, and so they will be this year as well.