The upcoming Hanukkah holiday is both a delightful and delicious festival.
Hanukkah is the recognition of two events: the military victory of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil. One represents history, the other represents faith. The Maccabees were an army of religious resistors to the foreign ruler, Antiochus, who wanted to take Judaism out of Jerusalem. After Antiochus brought pigs into the Temple, Jewish resistance flared and ultimately the Maccabees were successful in repelling the invaders. Before they could rededicate and use the Temple, they had to clean it. They discovered that there was only enough clean oil to last one night of the eight-day holiday, but when they continued with the ritual of lighting the lamp they discovered that the oil lasted throughout the entire festival.
The historical event of the Maccabean revolt is well-recognized and celebrated, and many contemporary sports teams and programs use “Maccabee” as a proud connection to their victory. However, that is not where the miracle is recognized; the miracle is recognized as being located in the oil. There are those who say that the oil itself was a miracle, that it lasted so much longer than believed possible. There are others who believe the miracle was in those who lit the lamp on the first night, that it was their faith that maintained the light throughout the holiday.
I believe our tradition shows an understanding of why it is not appropriate to rely on the military to “prove” righteousness; the legacy of the Maccabees devolved into zealotry that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people for 2000 years. Nor can righteousness jump from one country to another as their military power ebbed or flowed. We do not believe that might makes right; eventually might fades and power shifts to another country. Our moral values require more consistency than that.
Instead, righteousness is found in faith and this faith is expressed in the ritual of Hanukkah candle lighting. We use a menorah with holders for nine candles, one for each of the eight nights and one as the “shamash,” the candle that is lit and used to light all of the other candles. Many centuries ago there was an argument about how to light them, with one school, Shammai, saying that all eight candles should be lit on the first night, representing the burning faith of the Maccabees when they first started their rebellion. The other school, Hillel, opined that the lights should increase each day, beginning with one candle the first night, two for the second, and so on. This would represent the initial hesitation we all feel when starting something new and scary, so that our confidence increases each day we challenge ourselves to overcome our fears. The people decided to follow Hillel, and that is the ritual.
Like almost everything this year, Hanukkah is going to be different. No noisy crowded parties where we share heaping plates of fresh hot latkes and sweet jelly donuts; they will have to wait for next year. This year will be quieter and smaller, but perhaps this will inspire us to take up the custom of putting the lit menorah in a window, so that your light can shine for others and inspire them to not be afraid to light their own.
May we all have the strength to continue to light our own small lights, adding to each other and growing the light in our community and beyond. Happy Hanukkah!
Hanukkah began on Thursday night, Dec. 10. Congregation Etz Chaim will be lighting Hanukkah candles on Zoom each night at 6:30 p.m., and at 8 p.m. on Friday night as part of our regular Shabbat service.