There are many dimensions to Chanukah and many lessons are derived from this holiday annually. There is one lesson, however, that jumps out at us from the Torah reading that occurs two weeks prior to Chanukah, which is central to our understanding of this celebration.
In Genesis 34 we read that after Jacob had settled down with his family following his turbulent experiences with Laban and Esau, his daughter Dina was kidnapped and raped by Shechem, a favorite princely son of Hamor, chieftain of the area. This episode has generated much commentary. However, Rabbi Saul Berman focuses on an overlooked aspect of this narrative. He midrashically analyzes the behavior of Hamor and seeks to derive a significant lesson for us from this pagan.
We know how Shechem behaved, and we know how Dina’s brothers reacted to defend her honor. What do we learn from Hamor’s behavior? What was Hamor’s sin? On one level we can say that he condoned and accepted as normal his son’s immoral behavior. We might also observe that he didn’t even apologize to Jacob for Dina’s rape and abduction. But there is something more insidious at work here.
Hamor was blinded by his affection for his favorite son as much as he was by the opportunity to benefit from a close relationship with the tribes of Jacob. He envisioned an alliance that would bring prosperity to his people. He saw the alluring prospect of a social and commercial relationship. No matter that his son had defiled Jacob’s daughter, what was important to Hamor was that now he had an "in," a reason to propose an alliance with Jacob.
Hamor obviously observed something special about these people. They were wealthy and successful, their culture seemed worthy of emulation. He was so taken by them that he was willing to totally forsake his own Hivvite culture. Hamor was so enamored with these different people and their behavior and rituals that he was willing to adopt their practices en masse to further this relationship. Hamor’s sin was that he lacked ethnic pride. Each culture has its own DNA and he was willing to throw it away. In the end, this is what led to Hamor’s downfall and destruction.
Chanukah was essentially a civil war between traditional Jews who cherished their particularism and assimilated Hellenistic Jews who were willing to trade their Jewishness for social advancement and acceptance. Perhaps it is no accident that Hamor’s destruction, Syrian-Greek decrees, and Hellenistic assimilation were all centered around circumcision, the quintessential mark of Jewishness.
This then is what we learn from Hamor, played out centuries later by Jews who didn’t care to see the Biblical lesson of destruction that follows betrayal of one’s heritage. Jews have a proud legacy. It is not necessary to exchange one’s Judaism for success and acceptance. Jewish pride is found everywhere. From the sands of Iraq to the canyons of Wall Street. It is manifest in every sphere of human endeavor. The lesson of Chanukah is to keep the flame burning bright, with pure unadulterated oil.
Dr. Wallace Greene is the director of Jewish Educational Services for the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.