Exploring the lessons of Hanukkah


The standard religious school lesson teaches that we celebrate Hanukkah because although there was only enough oil in the Temple for one day, this tiny amount of oil burned for 8 days, and thus we celebrate by lighting candles for eight days. Neither Maccabees 1 or 2 however, makes any mention of oil. Originally the holiday was a late observance of Sukkot, the eight-day harvest festival celebrated in the fall. Observance continued in later years to commemorate the military victory.

The topic of Hanukkah does not arise again in Jewish texts until the time of the Talmud, several hundred years later, when the question is raised “What is Hanukkah?” The rabbis answer in a manner that nearly ignores the military victory of the Maccabees centuries earlier. It is here that the story of the miracle of the oil is constructed. The Maccabees entered the decimated Temple and found one small cruse of oil, enough to last only one day.

That small amount of oil lasted for eight days, following which a festival was appointed to celebrate this miracle. The rabbis’ attempt to disguise the original basis of military victory for the holiday was based in their desire to discourage rebellion in their own time.

While the story of the “Hanukkah miracle” contrived by the rabbis of the Talmud is certainly compelling, the importance of emphasizing human accomplishment as a partner to divine intervention also is meaningful. Likewise, the miracle story has an undeniably pacifist bent that cannot be ignored. The rabbis’ message echoes the words of the prophet Zechariah, that we read as our haftarah Dec. 12, “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit.”  (Zechariah 4:6)

Hanukkah is  the celebration of human triumph over religious persecution.

The holiday teaches us to rejoice over the presence of the divine light found even at the darkest time of the year. It reminds us (as if we needed a reminder) of the toll of war and the value of peace. Hanukkah teaches us to appreciate our own freedom and reminds us of our responsibility to act justly to secure the human and religious rights of those who are oppressed.

From the events in Paris, Mali and Beirut to the recent shooting in San Bernardino, the past few weeks have been filled with much suffering and heartbreak. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, “There always were two ways to live in a world that is often dark and full of tears. We can curse the darkness or we can light a light, and as the Chassidim say, a little light drives out much darkness.”

As we complete our celebration of Hanukkah may the Jewish values we cherish impel us to share the light – bringing peace to our own community and to the world.

Sarah Mack is rabbi at Temple Beth-El, Providence and president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.