As far as I am concerned, the miracle we celebrate during Hannukah has little or nothing to do with some oil lasting 8 days, despite what they taught me in Hebrew school. Allow me to risk sharing a little of what I try to let Hannukah mean to me.
Last year this time I had the incredible fortune of living on a moshav built around Hasmonean ruins near the city of Modi’in. I spent many warm sleepless nights laying on the ruins looking up at the stars and it is there that I realized that for whatever reason I feel more of a connection to my strong, desert dwelling, agricultural Israelite ancestors of 2,000+ years ago than I do to my more recent European shtetl heritage.
It was also there that I began to think of Hannukah in a different way (ie, not about the presents and parties, essentially a Jewish alternative to Christmas)
Ok, so you got this little tribe (a family of priests, no less) watching the Syrian army systematically take away everything that makes the Jewish people unique. Shabbat, circumcision, and Torah study, and failure to bow down to idols are now all crimes punishable by death. If this continues all Jews will be either assimilated or killed in no more than a generation or two. It’s essentially one of the early genocide attempts.
So the Maccabees (the more warrior-like name the Hasmonians and others took on) say enough is enough, and despite what any military strategist would warn them against they go up against the Syrian army. Completely against all reason or probability, they somehow manage to win and declare Jewish autonomy again in 164 BCE. They rededicate the temple, light the much famed menora with the oil which lasts for 8 days etc.
This, by the way, marks the first occurrence in history of a people rising up to fight for religious freedom. And winning.
And somehow, 2200 years later, despite the Romans, Spanish Inquisitors, Cossacks, Germans, Arabs, whoever, I am laying on the walls of these Hasmonean, speaking (with some difficulty) the same language, reading from the same Torah every shabbat.
And I can’t help but think that this was exactly what they were fighting for.
Hannukah is about Jewish strength and commitment. The continuing miracle of it is in Jewish continuity. Against all odds.
While I am pretty pluralistic, I can’t sugar coat the fact that this continuity is directly connected to our having hung on to Torah tenaciously from the time it was given until now. Whether you believe it is the direct word of God or not, the fact remains without keeping Torah, Judaism starts to fall apart. Otherwise, why couldn’t we have all been Hellenists, but still try to instill in our kids some of the moral Jewish values? Maybe the Maccabees should have let things be, but then none of us would be here today.
What they were fighting for was not the right to eat lox and cream cheese and an ethical way of living, but for our authenticity, which is absolutely inseparable from this crazy book of law and philosophy with enough in it to keep us busy studying and arguing into eternity [full disclosure; what was so clear to me last year, is quickly becoming a painfully apropos lesson as i’m writing it this time around].
Hannukah occurs in the darkest time of the year, and we all light candles and bring more light into the world. Which is, in fact, our mission, to be a ‘light to the nations’. We are cheating the world and ourselves out of it when we forget what that means.
Chrismukkah my ass.