On the light of Hanukka

Hanukka is called a minor holiday, but its inclusion in the Jewish calendar should make us sit up, pause and take a deeper look.

One of my favorite comic strips is Yaakov Kirschen’s Dry Bones. In one of his recent strips he makes the point that the miracle of Hanukka isn’t that the light lasted eight days, but that it has lasted for the past 2,000 years.
This Hanukka, as every past year, is not about the miracle of finding a flask of oil that lasts eight nights, but of the light of Torah that was not extinguished during that dark time and has illuminated the world for the last 3,300 years.
Hanukka is called a minor holiday, but its inclusion in the Jewish calendar should make us sit up, pause and take a deeper look. There is much more there than what we were taught in kindergarten.
Unlike every other holiday celebrated till the advent of the State of Israel, Hanukka is unique as it is the only Jewish holiday that is not mentioned in the Bible. The inclusion of a holiday not explicitly sanctioned by God or the Bible is curious, especially for Jews who are usually very conservative when it comes to changing practices.
The light of Hanukka is symbolic of the Torah. What then is Torah that we can compare it to light? Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz makes the point that while other religions have a concept of Torah from heaven, only we Jews have the concept of Torah being heaven itself. It would seem that while other revelations are meant to be informational engagement with Torah is meant to be transformational. It is different from other disciplines.
The Torah is not a history book, nor a science textbook; and thank God that is so, as the Torah proves to be miserable examples of both. The Torah is not a law book either.
It is, first and foremost, theology.
It is a translation of God’s thoughts for man into narrative, law, lore and poetry. It is the unique vehicle for us to have some semblance of who God is and what it is that God expects from us.
The Torah starts out with a universal message to all of creation. The first thing created was light. Now, all that was needed was an object or creature to shed that light upon. In time, God soon settles on just one planet. As the days of creation progress, so does God’s refinement of His creation. Again and again, God creates more and more complex creatures in order to find a listening ear for His message. With the evolution of man to Homo sapiens, God finally finds a creature to whom it is fit to say of him that he was created in God’s image. This “image” of course is not a physical form, but an intelligence with whom God can finally communicate.
As Genesis teaches, the universal message still fell upon deaf ears leading to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Soon there was the flood. Again, man failed to hear God’s message. Only with Abraham does God finally find a “friend.”
With this friendship a spark of the light of creation begins to shine. Abraham enters into a covenant with God to protect and keep the light glowing. On Mount Sinai the fullness of the light is made known and the people accept their mandate to guard and protect the light from all the winds and rain of history.
During the time of Hanukka our ancestors were challenged to exchange the light of Torah for what seemed to be an even brighter light, but that light was just an illusion, a “flower that bears no fruit.” Many were tempted and a few succumbed. What they don’t tell you in kindergarten is that the war of Hanukka wasn’t just against the Syrian-Greeks, but it was a civil war among the Jews themselves. We needed to fight among ourselves to ensure the survival of that light.
The Greeks invented modern science and math. They offered us our very first glimpse into the universe as it can be observed. The Jews on the other hand held firm that there was something beyond the observable universe. What the Greeks offered were the tools necessary for the maintenance and progress of our lives, what Torah offered was what made life worth living.
Torah could have lived very well in harmony with Greek thought and culture.
The two could have fed off themselves in what the Greeks would call a symbiotic relationship.
The problem became when the Greeks tried to displace Torah with their culture and left no room for Torah’s light. They in essence created a black hole that swallowed the light of Torah. This is what led to the Maccabean revolt. It was quite literally a fight of light versus darkness and this is what we commemorate today.
Hanukka is in essence a universal celebration. Held in the darkest time of the year, the Festival of Lights commemorates the victory of the light of Torah that through Judaism and its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, continues to shine bright.
Today, the symbol of the State of Israel is the menorah, the very same menorah lit by the Maccabees to mark their victory and the rededication of the Temple and themselves to its light. Israel chose the menorah as its symbol as it saw itself as the guardian of its light.
Let us all hope that Israel can live up to that vision and that we can truly be a “light unto the nations.” ■
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.