Pre-Hanukka thoughts

In many respects Hanukka is an enigmatic holiday. It celebrates a seemingly hollow triumph.

hanukah lights 88 224 (photo credit: Illustrative Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
hanukah lights 88 224
(photo credit: Illustrative Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
In many respects Hanukka is an enigmatic holiday. It celebrates an ephemeral and seemingly hollow triumph. The military victory of the Hasmoneans, as is the case with most military victories, proved to be temporary. The rule of the Hasmonean kings over Judea was a period laden with internal and external strife, civil war and eventual capitulation to Roman domination. The rise of the Sadducees, eventually encouraged by Alexander Yanai, the most powerful of the Hasmonean kings, undermined the people's faith in Torah and rabbinic tradition. So why is there such a big deal over Hanukka? It seems akin to the Japanese celebrating Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, as a national holiday. And as for the miraculous lights of Hanukka, the little oil that burned for eight days in the Temple, the Temple was destroyed two centuries later and with it the golden candelabrum disappeared from the Jewish world. Yet, if the rabbis of the Mishna declared Hanukka to be a holiday and it has been and remains such a holiday of family affection and meaning over all of the long years of Jewish history, there is undoubtedly a deeper cause that lies behind its existence and its staying power. The Jewish people and its rabbinic leadership are very hesitant to proclaim holidays or even days of commemoration. The recitation of the Hallel prayer on special commemorative days has remained a very touchy subject. Yet Hanukka merits eight full days of the recitation of the complete Hallel prayer. Why? I think that the answer lies in the view of the rabbis and of tradition as to the true nature of the struggle that Hanukka commemorates. The Jews were engaged not only in a military struggle against the Syrian Greeks but more importantly in a cultural struggle for the hearts and minds of Jews. The Syrian Greeks attempted to impose their culture, mores, way of life and beliefs on the Jews. In this they failed. The Jewish population had its own fifth column within it - the Hellenist Jews who were willing to succumb to the outward blandishments of Greek society and behavior. But the core of the Jewish people refused to be deterred from its traditions and uniquely holy value system. In the Purim story, we read that "Mordecai would not bend nor bow." Hanukka is the companion holiday to Purim, and the Hasmoneans in their original mold and the Jewish people at all times would also not bend nor bow to Greek culture. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi of 12th century Spain summed up the matter succinctly in his comment on Greek culture: "It is all beautiful flowers but produces no fruit." The triumph of Judaism over paganism and Greek culture was lasting, at least as far as the Jewish world is concerned. Thus the lights of Hanukka are certainly justified even today. They represent the light of Torah and goodness in a world of fright and darkness. Judaism has warred with many cultures over its long history. It struggled against Marxist atheism in this age, both in the Soviet Union and even here in the Land of Israel. Yet it has once again proven its invincibility. Jewish life in present-day Russia exists and grows, 90 years after Lenin and later Stalin arose to destroy it. In fact, it is today's symbol of the living candle of Jews and Judaism that Hanukka represents and strengthens. Today's inner enemy is apathy and hedonism. Yet here too we can see signs of a slow return to Jewish life style and values. We praise God on Hanukka with our Hallel service to remind us that this struggle to remain Jewish - witness the difficulty we have in admitting that we are a Jewish state - is one that we have always won. It is a lasting triumph and the fulfillment of our destiny and mission. The rabbis stated that "a little light can push away a great amount of darkness." As we prepare ourselves to soon light our Hanukka lights, we should remember this truism. It is no empty ritual that is being performed. Rather it is an affirmation of faith in our better future and a measure of thankfulness for the opportunities granted to us in our time. In the darkness of a seemingly never-ending exile, the small lights of Hanukka lit our way and gave us hope and warmth. They will certainly continue to do so in our time as they did in the past. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.