It is arguably the most popular of all Jewish holidays; no less than 80% of Israeli Jewry will light Hanukkah lights beginning this Sunday night, and I suspect the numbers of world Jewry are equally astronomic.
It’s no wonder that Hanukkah is so universally appealing. This Hag Ha’urim – Festival of Lights – is glitzy, shining and bright. Technically the longest of all Jewish holidays (in Israel), it has no halachic restrictions, features Hanukkah gelt, gifts galore, and all the unhealthy, fattening, oily foods that Jewish tradition thankfully bids us to partake of – at least once a year. And if we succumb to our urge to gamble by playing a bit of dreidel, well, that’s an added bonus.
Yet, along with all these attractive features, Hanukkah has something else going for it: It’s all about miracles. Just as Miracle on 34th Street is the quintessential Christmas movie – with Santa performing the wonders there – so Hanukkah is a kind of “Miracle on Maccabee Lane” prequel to that film. For who doesn’t like miracles?! They give our senses a rush, they validate our spiritual souls, and they illuminate even the darkest times by reminding us that anything is possible as long as you have faith.
BUT WHAT, exactly, is the miracle of Hanukkah?
Two distinct miracles seem to be simultaneously commemorated. The most widely known one, of course – exemplified by our nightly kindling of the hanukkiah – is the celebration of the solitary jar of oil that burned in the reconquered Temple’s menorah for a full eight days rather than just a single night.
This event finds its source in Megillat Ta’anit and is quoted in the Talmud in tractate Shabbat 21b. It is also featured in the beautiful hymn “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”) that we customarily sing as the lights burn.
The rabbis added an extra emphasis by promoting the principle of pirsumei nisa, the publicizing of the miracle. So, in many families, all the members light their own hanukkiot, and huge hanukkiot are erected (usually by Chabad) in city centers and public squares.
Yet while this is certainly the most visible aspect of the holiday, there is no mention whatsoever of the indestructible oil in our prayers of the day. Instead, in the Amida’s prayer “Al Hanisim” (“about the miracles”), we focus almost exclusively on the military victory of the Hasmoneans, who were greatly outnumbered by the Syrian-Greek forces that invaded Israel. We bless God, who “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure and the wicked into the hands of the righteous… providing the nation with a great victory.”
Though seen from different vantage points, both the spiritual and the military miracles have a common theme: purity of soul and purity of arms. It was this quality that fueled the oil, as well as the will of the Maccabee fighters as they struggled to expel the Greek invaders and restore Israel’s independence.
Oil, by its very nature, will not mix with other liquids (indeed, as a youngster, I made a hanukkiah by filling eight glasses with ¾ water and ¼ oil, placing floating wicks on their surface and lighting them). Just as oil is distinct and separate, so the defenders of the nation sought to keep Israel distinctive and faithful to our own persona.
Which brings us to the third and possibly the most important miracle of all. This was the battle before the battle, the existential struggle that took place between the staunch bearers of the faith – the Maccabees – and the Hellenist Jews who had begun to adopt Greek culture and ideology. Indeed, the “first shot” of this war occurred when Matityahu, the high priest, executed a Hellenist who had sacrificed a pig on the altar, flaunting his defiance of the Jewish faith. As recorded in the Book of the Maccabees:
“A Jewish man came, in the sight of all, to sacrifice on the altar at Modi’in, according to King Antiochus Epiphanes’s command. Matityahu saw this and was filled with zeal; he cast forth his rage and ran to slay him upon the altar. And also the king’s commissioner, who was compelling the Jews to sacrifice – he killed him as well, and then he pulled down the altar. He was zealous for the Torah, and he cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: “Whoever is zealous for the Torah, and maintains the covenant – let him follow me!” (I Makkabim 2:23-27).
“A Jewish man came, in the sight of all, to sacrifice on the altar at Modi’in, according to King Antiochus Epiphanes’s command. Matityahu saw this and was filled with zeal; he cast forth his rage and ran to slay him upon the altar. And also the king’s commissioner, who was compelling the Jews to sacrifice – he killed him as well, and then he pulled down the altar. He was zealous for the Torah, and he cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: “Whoever is zealous for the Torah, and maintains the covenant – let him follow me!”Book of Maccabees 2:23-27
It was only after the Maccabees had unified the Jews that they were then able to confront the Syrian forces and defeat them. The Greek bans on Shabbat observance, circumcision and the ordering of the Jewish calendar would now be abolished, pagan practices would be abandoned, and the Temple would be rededicated. The stage was set for an Israel of one mind to direct its undivided attention to driving the alien camp and culture out of our land.
THAT WAS then, and this is now. The Israel of today, by all accounts, is a divided citizenry. Despite the false narrative of many in the incoming government, this coalition comes into power by the very slimmest of margins. Had only a scant few more votes been cast for one of the failed parties, we would now be preparing for yet another election. The popular vote, too, was almost exactly even.
Under these circumstances, the most pressing task of this latest Netanyahu administration is not to cultivate ties with foreign powers or seek international support, as important as those things may be. The primary need is to look inward, to heal wounds, to embrace all the citizens of Israel and create common ground, not battlegrounds. If we do not rally around a central mission, if we spend most of our time fighting one another, we will jeopardize everything we have built over the last century.
Uniting the Jewish people is a very ambitious challenge, to say the least, but it is one that will determine our ability to fend off the wolves at our door and survive all the threats leveled against us. It may even take a miracle – a Hanukkah-like miracle – but it can and must be done.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]