Tradition Today: For the miracles

What is the message, or better what are the messages of Hanukka for us?

I have always been puzzled by the talmudic passage asking "What is Hanukka?" The question is answered the well-known story of the miraculous cruse of oil (Shabbat 21b). By the time this was formulated, centuries after the events, everyone must surely have known the story of the Maccabean revolt and victory of the Hasmoneans over the Syrian Greeks. It was recorded in the Books of Maccabees which, although not accepted into the canon, certainly had been read and preserved. More importantly the prayer Al Hanissim - "For the miracles" - recited all through the eight days of Hanukka - was part of the liturgy and explained what had happened then: the victories of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. What then was the question? Some scholars suggest that since the dynasty of the Hasmoneans had become corrupt and was not looked upon favorably by the sages - to put it mildly - they therefore sought to deemphasize the role of the Hasmoneans by placing emphasis not on their victory but on a supernatural event, a miracle caused by God, namely the otherwise unknown story of the long-lasting oil. Others (among them Rashi) suggest that they were asking, "What was the miracle that is referred to by the phrase al hanissim?" If "miracle" means something supernatural, there does not seem to be one, only the normal events of history. The answer, therefore, is that the miracle is not the victory but the oil that lasted supernaturally for a full eight days. Another suggestion has to do with the length of the holiday. Why, they wanted to know, do we celebrate for eight days? Historically we know the reason: They were celebrating a pseudo-Succot since that was the last festival on the calendar before the Temple was restored and Succot lasts eight days (including Shmini Atzeret). Originally Hanukka was known as the Succot of the month of Kislev. Perhaps that has been forgotten and so the story of the eight-day oil to explain why we celebrate and light lights for eight days. Yet others suggest that the sages were intent upon playing down the importance of the military victory, which is the main subject of the Al Hanissim prayer. In view of the disastrous results of two ill-conceived and ill-fated military adventures that had taken place - the Great Revolt that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE that brought about the total collapse of Jewish national identity and so much death and destruction, they did not want to encourage any possibility of further military campaigns. Indeed that fear became enshrined in Jewish law and tradition and resulted in the teaching that we should never again try to use human means to restore Jewish independence but must accept the rule of the nations and wait patiently for the messiah. It took political Zionism to overcome that feeling, which accounts for the early resistance to Zionism on the part of most Orthodox thinkers, something that still can be found in the ranks of the Natorei Karta, the Satmar Hassidim and some other haredi groups. The shift in emphasis from military means to a more religious meaning is quite evident when we compare the Al Hanissim prayer to the talmudic story. In the former we are told in detail of the victorious battle, the deliverance of the many in the hands of the few, the strong into the hands of the weak and so forth, and at the end there is mention of lighting "lights in the sacred courtyard," not specifically of the relighting of the menora. Lights may simply have been part of the general Succot celebration. In descriptions of part of these Succot celebrations in the Mishna, there is great emphasis on lights. In the talmudic story, there is brief mention of the battle but a full description of the problem of not having pure oil which was needed for the lighting of the menora (see Exodus 27:20). To emphasize that even more, a passage from Zechariah describing the menora and containing the words, "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit - said the Lord of hosts" (4:6) was chosen as the prophetic reading. Taken all in all, what is the message, or better what are the messages of Hanukka for us? First, that there are times when we must fight for our independence and the right to live freely as Jews. Second, that we must not allow military might in and of itself to become the goal of our existence. Third, that ultimately our success depends not alone on might but on right and on the purity of our cause. And finally, that when all is said and done it is God's spirit and light that prevails in this world and that we are God's partners in bringing that about. That is no less a miracle than the cruse of oil. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.