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Mintz: The Olympian and the menorah

Although it appears Lindsey Vonn is swapping out her Vail residence in favor of a New Jersey abode with fiance P.K. Subban, her life and legend will forever be intertwined with this town. 

Vonn is not on my mind because of the onset of the ski season, however, but because of the approach of another holiday — Hanukkah, the festival of lights, which Jews across the world will celebrate from December 22-30. 

What does the daredevil Olympic champion, the most decorated women’s skier ever, have to do with a holiday commemorating an ancient religious war in Syrian-controlled Israel over 2,000 years ago? 

Excellent question. But first, a brief historical refresher. 

History of Hanukkah

Antiochus IV, king of the Syrian-Greek Empire empire which ruled Israel in the 2nd century B.C.E., was an intolerant tyrant. Like any good despot, he feared the individualists, the weeds in his manicured, Hellenistic garden. And who fit this description better than the monotheistic Jews?

Antiochus forbid observance of Jewish law by pain of death. In the gravest insult, his army vandalized and defiled the Jewish temple. A small cadre of dedicated Jews retreated to the mountains where they engaged in guerilla warfare against the enemy. They called themselves the Maccabees (a Hebrew abbreviation for “Who is like You, O G‑d).” Antiochus sent 40,000 soldiers to stamp out the rebellion, only to see his powerful army defeated by the ragtag Maccabees.

The Maccabees marched on to liberate Jerusalem. They cleared the temple of the idols and built a new altar.

Which brings us to the most famous element of the Hanukkah story: In the temple, there was a golden menorah (candelabra) with seven branches. Each day, a priest would light it with ritually pure olive oil. When the Maccabees sought to kindle the menorah, they found that the Greeks had defiled all the oil save for one forgotten jar that held just one days’ worth of fuel. They lit the menorah, and it miraculously continued to burn for eight days until new oil could be procured.   

A burning passion

The Maccabees’ act of faith is not fully appreciated without some broader context. Under the plain rule of Jewish law, it is permissible to light the Menorah with defiled oil when no better option is available. There was plenty of defiled oil in the temple the Jews could have used while they waited for the new, purer product to arrive. 

Yet they refused to settle. They did not come so far only to swallow the legally acceptable path. They wanted more — they wanted their light to be the highest, purest, and most sublime radiance possible. Better one day of uncontaminated light, they said, than a steady supply of second-best. For this dedication, they were rewarded with the miraculous. God saw their irrational, perhaps unwarranted, passion, and responded in kind, with irrational love. The light burned for eight days and nights. 

Answering adversity

Lindsey Vonn did not earn the admiration of the skiing world merely because of her dominance in downhill or her unrivaled record. Her legend was formed by how she responded to adversity. 

Beset with a string of devastating injuries, she vowed to return to the slopes every time. But she was never content to just be good enough to compete again — she never intended to score a moral victory. She skied to win. Every time. She exhausted herself in every descent; she held back nothing, pushed herself to the maximum speed she was capable of, and even beyond that. 

Lindsey Vonn thrilled us because every time she skied, she emptied herself entirely on the mountain. In her world, she displayed the stubbornness of a Maccabee.    

This Sunday Vail Chabad Jewish Center will be hosting a new build-your-own-Menorah program for families at The Home Depot. 

What is the menorah’s message to our children?  The word “Hanukkah” means “dedication.” The menorah celebrates the indomitable human spirit of the Maccabees who accepted no compromise in their faith, whose dedication went beyond what was required. 

Like the Maccabees before us and like our own local legend, we must teach our children to never compromise on their highest ideals and to exert themselves in pursuit of their attainment. If they do, that is the miracle of the menorah. 

Rabbi Dovid Mintz directs Vail Chabad Jewish Center. He and his family live in Vail since 2006. He can be reached at info@JewishVail.com.


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