There is a story of a prince, a true prodigal son, whose antics and excesses taxed his father’s patience until the king, with no other recourse, sent his son penniless into exile to learn responsibility and humility.
The prince wandered from place to place, half-starving, unqualified for any craft or labor, until he finally found work as a shepherd in a distant land. The job of shepherding was not overly difficult, but the sun burned the prince’s back by day, the wind froze him at night, and the rain soaked through his clothes in winter.
Other shepherds built little huts to protect them from the elements, but whenever the poor prince tried to build himself a hut it toppled over in the first strong breeze.
Years went by, until at last the prince heard that the king was coming to the province where he lived. There was a custom in the kingdom that people would write their wishes upon scraps of paper and throw them at the king’s carriage. Any requests that the king picked up a read would be granted immediately. So the prince positioned himself along the parade route and, as the king’s carriage passed, he took careful aim and tossed his note.
The paper fell at the king’s feet. He unrolled it and, recognizing his son’s handwriting, he began to weep. For the note asked if the king would give the prince a little hut to protect him from the sun and the wind and the rain.
“My son could have asked to return to the palace,” cried the king, “but he no longer knows he is a prince.”
So it was in the days of the Maccabees, when the Jewish people were so steeped in the physical aestheticism and indulgences of Greek culture that many of them forgot that they were in exile, forgot that they were inheritors of a priceless spiritual legacy, forgot that they were children of the King.
But a few didn’t forget. A few risked their lives to honor the Sabbath, to circumcise their sons, to study the Torah of their fathers and grandfathers, to preserve the divine spark that had guided their ancestors for a thousand years. And, when their moment came, those few took up arms against their oppressors and fought for the privilege of living as Jews. They recaptured the Holy Temple and, as they rekindled the menorah, divine light flooded the streets and courtyards of Jerusalem, pushing off the darkness of exile, waking the people from cultural forgetfulness, inspiring a generation to remember its ancient roots cast its aspirations once more toward the heavens.
Today, 2,180 years later, we too live in an age of spiritual darkness, when the loudest and most persistent voices in our surrounding culture cry out to expunge every mention of the divine, to condemn every moral judgment, to sanctify every perversion in the name of “tolerance.” We live in an era of unprecedented material comfort and convenience, tranquilizing our bodies and our minds so that we can easily stifle the yearning of our souls.
But when the days are shortest and the nights are coldest, just then can a little light shine forth and dispel much darkness. Like a lighthouse guiding a ship home, the lights of the Chanukah menorah can draw us back from the abyss of spiritual oblivion. And as we add candle upon candle and light upon light, the growing radiance of the menorah reminds us of the divine flame that has guided us through the darkness of exile and saved us from the darkness of assimilation for generation after generation.
If we, like the Hellenist Jews, allow the material values of contemporary culture to shape our thinking and guide our actions, then we have truly forgotten who we are. Like the prince whose soul longed for nothing but a little hut to protect him from the sun and the rain, we will be destined to live out our days in futility.
But if we cling to all that which is noble within us, if the values of our tradition drive us to perform acts of kindness and charity, to devote a few moments each day to heartfelt and meditative prayer, to treat neighbors and strangers alike with respect, to set an example of morality and character for our children — then we will have rekindled the spark of divinity inside us, and we will have earned the privilege to have our Father, the King, bring us home.
Originally published in 2003 by Jewish World Review