Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus (Class 16) who serves as rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland, ME.  Akiva recently attending the Wexner Heritage Alumni and Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Alumni Study Day in Philadelphia which was held at the National Museum of American Jewish History. He can be reached at rabbiherzfeld@gmail.com. 

PORTLAND — The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins this year at nightfall today and lasts for eight days, until Dec. 9. 

It might seem strange that the holiday is closer to Thanksgiving than to Christmas this year, but the reason for this is that the Hebrew calendar functions differently, following the lunar cycles, rather than our more familiar solar calendar.

I think it’s especially appropriate this year that the Hanukkah holiday falls so close to Thanksgiving because I am feeling especially grateful to America and the freedoms of our blessed country.

I recently came back from a visit to Philadelphia, where I saw the new National Museum of American Jewish History.

The museum was built at a cost of more than $150 million. It opened to the public on Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving.

The goal of the museum is to tell the story of the Jewish experience in America for both Jews and non-Jews.

According to the museum’s mission statement, the hope is that the museum will “inspire in people of all backgrounds a greater appreciation for the diversity of the American Jewish experience and the freedoms to which Americans aspire.”

During my visit to the museum, I had a chance to meet some of the museum’s founders and board members.

Why, I asked, did they donate so much money and time to build a museum about American Jewish history?

They replied that they were incredibly grateful to America and they wanted to give back to the country and preserve and share the Jewish story and experience of freedom here with others.

The Jewish story is in some sense unique, but in other ways it is a shared experience with other ethnic and religious groups that came to America and overcame poverty and discrimination to achieve great standing in American society.

America is the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.

We may open up the morning newspaper and see all the worries about the state of our economy or the anxieties about how other nations are catching up to or surpassing America in military forces or educational achievement, but no nation matches America.

This is the greatest nation now, and perhaps it is the greatest nation that ever was.

For me, America is not about our giant passenger jets, or our trips to the moon, or our great military.

These are all great achievements, but the greatest thing about America is the ideas that unite our nation: our love for democracy and our love for liberty and freedom.

We’re so free, that sometimes we don’t even fully appreciate what our freedom means.

This is what elderly immigrants who survived the Nazis or the Communists tell me. In nations like North Korea or Iran, people are daily deprived of their basic human rights, including freedom of thought and opinion, and expression of ideas without restraint.

In America, we are free to say what we want, when we want, and to hell with anyone who tries to get in the way of our freedom of expression.

In Judaism, the holiday of Hanukkah reminds us of this battle for freedom against tyranny.

At the time of the Maccabees, more than 2,000 years ago, a tyrant named Antiochus tried to stop the Jews from worshipping freely. 

Antiochus tried to unite his empire with an idea, but with an evil idea. He wanted to coerce the Jews to believe in the gods of his empire.

He wanted to force the Jews to stop circumcising their male babies, to compel the Jews to give up the celebration of the Sabbath, and to censor all study of the Torah and Jewish religious texts. He violated the religious Temple of the Jews.

His name was Antiochus Epiphanes, but the Jews called him Antiochus Epimames, or Antiochus the Madman. As a child, I learned the story of Hannah and her seven sons, who stood up to Antiochus.

He demanded that they bow down to him and worship idols, but she and her seven sons all refused to abandon the God of Creation to worship a human tyrant. So they were tortured and killed by Antiochus and his obedient soldiers.

They are martyrs, witnesses to God’s glory.

The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom. Hanukkah reminds us that sometimes we need to go to war and fight even to the death for our freedoms because there are tyrants and madmen out there who are trying to subdue us.

This Hanukkah, when I light the candles, I’m not only going to think about the story of ancient Israel where the Maccabees, a small group of warriors, defeated the seemingly great and mighty forces of Antiochus.

I’m also going to think about the world today.

We need to uphold the eternal light of our God-given freedoms in the struggle against the darkness of tyranny and suppression.