This Saturday night begins Hanukkah, our Jewish winter celebration. Later in the Gregorian year than normal, according to the lunar calendar Hanukkah falls the same time every year—a week that runs over the new moon closest to the solstice, the longest and darkest night of the year.
Hanukkah is our tradition’s contribution to these wintertime festivals, and the layers of meaning behind the holiday are many. As a nod to these long nights of darkness, Hanukkah is the time in which we light candles against the darkness, marking the turning of the seasons and with the celebration of the solstice, the return of the light and the lengthening days.
Hanukkah also celebrates the story of a miracle—how when the ancient Temple was restored after being desecrated by the Greek king Antiochus, only a small vial of sanctified oil was found to light the menorah, the lamp that was permanently lit within the Temple. Enough to last only one day as the story goes, the oil lasted for eight, which allowed time to produce more sanctified oil. The miracle is on the one hand the fact that a small resource lasted so long. On the other hand, the miracle is the act of faith and commitment that leads one to act even if one feels that their action will be for limited or minimal effect.
It’s this second understanding of the miracle that I have been thinking of recently, for it ties into the other layer of meaning for Hanukkah, the historical reason. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek king Antiochus IV imposed oppressive rule on the Jewish community of Judea, banning Jewish worship and ritual practice and desecrating Jewish holy spaces.
The historical record is nuanced on what Antiochus was doing. While he did impose the oppressive regulations, he was in part responding to a Jewish civil struggle in which traditionalists and Hellenists were at odds with each other and fought among themselves for power within the autonomous Jewish community. He was therefore trying the strengthen his rule by intervening in an internal struggle, pitting factions against each other.
And while not part of the traditional Hanukkah story we tell, when he imposed the anti-Jewish measures the historical Antiochus was returning from a stinging defeat in Egypt. Perhaps his actions towards the Jews was a way of turning against a people already under his control, again as a means of asserting his power by bullying and picking on a power lesser than he.
But needless to say, his rule drew opposition, and that is the traditional story we tell. The priest Mattithias and his sons led a revolutionary band of mercenaries called the Maccabees, who revolted against the oppressive regime and successfully drove out Antiochus and the Greek army, thus establishing an independent Jewish political entity.
This is the miracle we celebrate.
Just like lighting the lights at the end of the story, the miracle of the Maccabees in the beginning of their story is that they took action even if they thought that their action may only have minimal and temporary effect. Did they know that their small rebellion would be enough to overthrow a larger army? We don’t know. But they took action anyway, and eventually were successful.
Therefore moreso than lights, and moreso than the military victory itself, the miracle of the Maccabees is the initial rejection of the conditions imposed on them. They could have been complacent, could have accepted their political reality. But rather than choose to try to understand Antiochus, or his supporters, or his motives, rather than reach out to bridge the divide, they saw a situation that was untenable and organized against it.
When we light the candles on the menorah, we do so with the knowledge that they will burn out. But we keep lighting them, night after night, more candles each night. And when we do so, we see that each small action has a greater and greater impact. The lights of the menorah remind us of the power we can and should wield to examine our conditions, reject those that we find oppressive and intolerable, and organize to change them.
The candles of the menorah remind us that through organizing and action, we can make miracles.