The eight-day Festival of Lights that begins Sunday night is a celebration of spiritual freedom that marks the triumph of a small group of the oppressed over a mighty army.
But for Rabbi Michael Perice, the Hanukkah message strikes more deeply than that of an unlikely military victory over 2,000 years ago in the Land of Israel.
The holiday commemorates the power of a burst of light to overcome impenetrable darkness and is about “defeating an oppressor through thick and thin through belief and hope,” said Perice, who is a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Cinnaminson.
When it comes to beating the odds, Perice has first-hand experience.
Ten years ago, he was an opioid addict desperately looking for a solution. He called his usual suppliers for OxyContin, but the only person who answered dropped off a bag of heroin, a substance Perice had never tried.
And it was then that Perice underwent what he now describes as a spiritual experience. “I was given the opportunity to make a choice,” Perice said, knowing that if he used the contents of the bag he would die.
Finish a battle, start a new chapter
He threw the heroine in the toilet and called his parents for help. The next morning he was in treatment. And so he ended his four-year battle with drugs and set out on the road to freedom.
Last summer, Perice confided in his herd about his battle with drug addiction. Its purpose was to light up the darkness, much like the menorah that the Jews light each Hanukkah night.
“I wanted to share my story because I knew it could save lives,” he said, adding that he hoped to cultivate a spirit of trust and transparency with his congregation.
“If people see that a rabbi can share his story of addiction, then maybe they will find that there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“There are so many people struggling with this problem in secret,” he said. “They act like it’s not a Jewish thing and it’s wrong because it prevents people from getting the help they need. Drug addiction is a disease.”
The insurance whirlwind has been mind-blowing, he told NorthJersey.com in an interview. Devotees, friends and even strangers from all over the world who heard of his trip called, emailed, and wrote sincere letters of support.
Some people said his honesty made them talk about their own addictions. A woman said she wished her son, who died of a drug overdose several years ago, could meet him. “Maybe he would still be alive today,” she said.
Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew and refers to the re-dedication of the Temple following desecration by the Syro-Greeks. The story dates back to around 164 BC, when the Syro-Greeks who ruled Israel prohibited Jews from observing their religion and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Maccabees revolted against persecution. Defying the odds, they defeated the mighty Syro-Greek army and reclaimed their temple. But when they sought to rekindle the menorah in the temple, they found only enough purified oil to keep it alight for a day. According to Jewish tradition, the oil remained hot for eight days, long enough for them to get additional oil.
For most of Jewish history, Hanukkah was considered a minor holiday.
In modern times, the holiday has seen a rise in popularity which many attribute to its proximity to the Christmas calendar. But the central Hanukkah themes have mass appeal, even to those who generally do not observe Jewish rituals. A key tenet of the holiday is the struggle for freedom against the dark face of oppression and the quest to express one’s political and religious identity.
Another message from the holiday – which is celebrated by lighting the menorah, saying special prayers, and eating fried foods – is that even the smallest light can dispel darkness.
For those who are recovering, the themes of Chanukah resonate.
“It offers powerful symbolism,” Perice said. “This little lump of oil that lasts eight days reminds us that we can have reserves within ourselves that can give us enough strength to carry us through, even if we think we don’t have what it takes. . ”
“The Maccabees teach us that you can defeat any oppressor as long as you have supporters,” Perice said. “We can overcome all the bad forces in our lives. We just need to believe in ourselves. This is a great message that we need to remember.”
Spirituality can be helpful in breaking the cycle of addiction, experts say. Studies by the National Institutes of Health have shown that religion promotes resilience in long-term sobriety and that people with religious or spiritual affiliations are less likely to use drugs.
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Gloucester County Rabbi Avi Richler, who runs The Shoova House, sober homes in southern Jersey to help people recover from drug addiction, and who serves as a spiritual counselor in several drug treatment programs in New York. Jersey, noted that the principles of Judaism can help in the recovery journey. “When you look at the road to recovery, it’s all about responsibility, mentoring, and a personal relationship with God. These are all Jewish ideas. “
Many people associate the Hanukkah story of overcoming adversity with their own personal battle against overwhelming demons. “It’s an inspiring story for anyone who feels lonely and small in the face of mighty armies,” he said.
Addiction after a car accident
Perice grew up in a Reform Jewish family in Cherry Hill. After celebrating his bar mitzvah at the age of 13, he lost his illusions and left Jewish life.
He became addicted to drugs in college after being injured in a car accident in 2007. A doctor prescribed pain relievers and Perice always needed higher doses to deal with his back pain.
While he was recovering, Perice’s life took on a more spiritual turn. He began to think more deeply about his religion.
“I was hardly a practicing Jew at the time. I couldn’t imagine my life would ever go in that direction,” he said, explaining that for him a career in the rabbinate at that time. was about as likely as a career in the NFL. “It shows that overcoming addiction opens the world to so many possibilities.”
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During his recovery, he worked at his family’s funeral home in Philadelphia, where he developed close relationships with several rabbis, sparking his interest in Judaism. “I realized that I had searched for meaning and purpose in my life,” he said.
“Reconnecting with my Judaism and my faith has helped me build a foundation to grow,” he said. “Being part of a community and this ancient tradition anchored me in a way that brought the much needed peace in my life.”
He enrolled at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA in 2014 and was ordained a priest in 2020. He joined Temple Sinai in July 2020.
The story of the Maccabees, he said, is the story of anyone trying to make an impossible dream come true.
“We have more resilience than we think,” he said. “Where did it come from?” For the Jews, it comes from our tradition. We see the struggles of our ancestors, knowing that time and time again we have overcome the most destructive forces.
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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