With Hanukkah beginning this Sunday night, it is time to retell the traditional story of Hanukkah, how a small band of Jewish rebels rose up against the oppressive regime of King Antiochus, the Greek ruler who imposed severe restrictions on the Jewish community and Jewish practice, even desecrating the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Once the rebellion was successful, the rebels, known as the Maccabees, went about rededicating the Temple and restoring Jewish worship.
As part of that rededication, the story goes, the Maccabees went to light the lamp that was meant to be continually lit. They found only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day, but it burned for eight. This, the ancient Jewish sages say in the Talmud, was the miracle of Hanukkah, and why the holiday is celebrated for eight days.
But this is only one tradition for the source of the length of the holiday. When we read the historical accounts of the Hanukkah story in the apocryphal biblical books I and II Maccabees, the reason is different. There is no mention of a small vial of oil burning for an extended period of time. Rather, upon rededicating the Temple, the Jews celebrated Sukkot, which they were unable to mark due the ongoing battles. Once the war was over and the Temple restored, the Jews were able to celebrate Sukkot, a seven-day holiday, and Shimini Atzeret, the separate festival which immediately follows Sukkot, and thus make an eight-day-long celebration. The Maccabees instituted the celebration of Hanukkah to remember the events, and the holiday lasts eight days to parallel the eight day celebration of the late Sukkot the Maccabees observed.
The two sources tell different stories, perhaps for different reasons. The historical sources want to glorify and highlight the military victory. The rabbinic sources want to put the focus on a divine miracle. In other words, the historical sources want to put the emphasis on human action and the rabbis want to put the emphasis on divine action.
While seemingly contradictory, the two can be harmonized. Narratively we can tell both stories together, how after the Maccabees were successful in their revolt, they went into the Temple and found the oil and their success was sealed by the miracle of the lamp. Thus the human acts and the divine act can be told seamlessly in one narrative. It can be both/and, and not either/or.
Harmonize these stories we must, for we need to tell them together, we can not choose one narrative over the other. We need both divine inspiration and human action.
It is by relying on both that we are able to navigate our lives. We are taught in our Jewish tradition that we are partners with God; in the beginning stories of Genesis, the stories of the Garden of Eden, God creates the world and then creates humans to take care of it. This, from the beginning of our sacred text, teaches us an important value. We look to God as a source of vision, but we must act ourselves to make that vision a reality.
I’m writing this in the wake of another major mass shooting in America, something that happens unfortunately on an all too regular basis. And in all the reaction, I was struck by the front page of the New York Daily News, and its sensationalist headline:
Irrespective of the specific political bent of the headlines, the editors are sending a strong message: platitudes about “thoughts and prayers” aren’t going to cut it when there are real steps we can take to abate the constant gun violence in our country.
So yes we must pray. Prayer is the means by which we can give voice to our ideals and articulate our hope and dreams. Prayers for peace, prayers for justice, prayers for healing are important in that they remind us that peace, justice and healing are values we hold in high importance.
And at the same time, we commit to do what we can to bring about peace, justice and healing.
Like the rabbis of the Talmud, we must see the miracle that is redemption, that is light out of darkness, that is the ability to overcome oppression. And like the authors of the Book of Maccabees, we must see the role we need to play to bring that to fruition.
The task is daunting. It is tempting at times to see the enormity of the task and resign ourselves to the fact that that human agency will never accomplish our greatest ideals. Or to rely solely on prayer without doing what is necessary. Will gun violence ever completely be wiped away from the face of the earth? Probably not. Will evil continue to exist? Will sickness and disaster continue to plague us? Probably yes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to bring about the better world we so desire.
In harmonizing the stories of Hanukkah, and in rebelling against our contemporary challenges, we would do well to remember another teaching from the ancient rabbis, from Pirke Avot: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21) For perhaps the miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted for eight days, but that the Maccabees lit it at all, knowing that it wasn’t enough.
With each night of Hanukkah, with each new candle we light, we remember an ancient story of redemption at the same time we remind ourselves that we have the power to increase the light. The darkness may return when the candles burn out, but we say our prayers and light them anyway.