Hanukkah

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • MIKE FEUER The writer, a rabbi, is a fac­ulty mem­ber of the Pardes In­sti­tute of Jewish Stud­ies, co-au­thor of the Age of Prophecy se­ries of bib­li­cal fic­tion and cre­ator of the Jewish Story, a pod­cast that ex­plores Jewish con­scious­ness in its his­tor­i­cal co

Each year we pass through the same holy days, con­nect­ing anew to events in the past; but our travel through the an­nual cy­cle is not just spir­i­tual nos­tal­gia. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes that each mo’ed, each ap­pointed day, is ac­tu­ally a way sta­tion in time. When we reach a sa­cred mo­ment of the cal­en­dar, “the very ho­li­ness of time that in­flu­ences us to­day is the same as when the fes­ti­vals were first com­mem­o­rated.”

This is the se­cret of the sec­ond bless­ing we say over the Hanukkah can­dles, mark­ing the mir­a­cle done for our an­ces­tors “in those days at this time.” The power of the Hanukkah story, says Dessler, is avail­able to us in the present, each and ev­ery year. But what is that story?

It usu­ally helps to tell a story from the start, but if we be­gin the Hanukkah story on 25 Kislev, the problems also com­mence right away. Jerusalem was con­quered at the open­ing of the Mac­cabean Re­volt, not at its con­clu­sion, and the Tem­ple was lib­er­ated sev­eral days be­fore the 25th. So why was this the date cho­sen as a cel­e­bra­tion for all gen­er­a­tions?

Part of the an­swer lies in the Book of Hag­gai. There, in the sec­ond chap­ter, the prophet ad­dresses the Jews who had up­rooted them­selves from the com­fort of Baby­lo­nian ex­ile and fol­lowed the voice of God back to Zion. It isn’t go­ing well, the econ­omy is in sham­bles and en­e­mies threaten all around. Urg­ing the peo­ple to unify, over­come their fears and fin­ish re­build­ing the Tem­ple, Hag­gai prom­ises them safety and well-be­ing. Their doubts are not dis­pelled un­til he fi­nally de­clares in the Di­vine voice: “I am go­ing to shake the heav­ens and the earth. And I will over­turn the thrones of king­doms and de­stroy the might of the king­doms of the na­tions” (Hag­gai 2:21-22). That day was 24 Kislev, and the Tem­ple ser­vice restarted the very next morn­ing.

The rest of our an­swer is found in the Sec­ond Book of Mac­cabees, which says: “Now upon the same day that the strangers pro­faned the Tem­ple, on the very same day it was cleansed again .... ” (Macc. II, 10:5). On 25 Kislev, at the out­set of the re­volt three years ear­lier, the Greeks de­filed the al­tar and placed an idol in the Holy of Holies. Through the Hel­lenist Jews, they had con­trolled the Tem­ple for some time. They chose this date in or­der to prove the prophecy false and show that Is­rael was just like the other na­tions they had con­quered. By over­turn­ing An­ti­ochus’s king­dom and reded­i­cat­ing the al­tar on the very same day, Ju­dah and his broth­ers were as­sert­ing the truth of the Di­vine prom­ise.

The books of Mac­cabees show that Ju­dah and his broth­ers saw their story as one of God act­ing in his­tory, and that the mir­a­cle of Hanukkah was God lend­ing strength to the right­eous few in bat­tle, so that the Jewish story could con­tinue. They also make clear that the Mac­cabees knew the dan­ger of spir­i­tual power clothed in mil­i­tary might. This is why they marked their vic­tory with Hal­lel, songs of praise and thanks­giv­ing, and in­sti­tuted eight days of cel­e­bra­tion like the eight days of Sukkot. The sons of Mat­tathias hoped that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions could cel­e­brate their mil­i­tary vic­tory as a Di­vine mir­a­cle and not fall into the er­ror of be­liev­ing that “my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (Deuteron­omy 8:17).

We have no record of how Hanukkah was cel­e­brated in the king­dom es­tab­lished af­ter the re­volt, but we do know that it de­scended quickly from the Mac­cabees’ spir­i­tual heights. I can imag­ine that the Has­monean kings sang as many praises to them­selves as to God, and sadly their deeds tell us that they learned quickly to rely on the strength of their own hands.

THERE IS an­other Hanukkah story that we know, one about the light that emerges from the dark­est of places. Where does that story orig­i­nate, and where can it lead?

To the Sages of the Baby­lo­nian Tal­mud, who told the story hun­dreds of years later, the golden Meno­rah lies at the cen­ter of the plot.

The Mac­cabees al­most fal­tered in the face of what they found in the lib­er­ated Tem­ple. Their whole goal in fight­ing was to rekin­dle the lamp of God, but they were un­pre­pared for the ex­tent of the im­pu­rity that had taken hold at the heart of Is­rael. The mir­a­cle was that they did not give up, and their vic­tory was made com­plete by their faith in a sav­ing rem­nant. Their be­lief that af­ter decades of cul­ture war, a point of pu­rity re­mained, pro­duc­ing a tiny jar of oil which burned for eight days.

Thou­sands of years later, we are still light­ing can­dles to re­call the power of their con­vic­tion.

Yet there is more to how the rab­bis told the Hanukkah story. The Tal­mud teaches else­where (Avoda Zara 8a) that when Adam en­coun­tered the first win­ter, and the days grew grad­u­ally dark, he pan­icked and cried out: “Woe is me! My sin has de­stroyed the en­tire world!” When the spring came and the dark­ness passed, he re­al­ized that this was sim­ply the way of the world. In cel­e­bra­tion, Adam fixed an eight-day fes­ti­val for all gen­er­a­tions, to mark the re­turn of the light. Thus Hanukkah also be­comes the story of the es­sen­tial hu­man need to be­lieve that even in the dark­est times, the light will re­turn.

The Jews have al­ways lived in ten­sion with the world, caught be­tween the pulls of the par­tic­u­lar and the univer­sal. It there­fore should come as no sur­prise that the Sages tell Hanukkah sto­ries about both the in­ex­tin­guish­able light of Jewish na­ture, and the univer­sal hu­man hope that dawn fol­lows the dark. Theirs is a story about the par­tic­u­lar type of faith that emerges only from threat­en­ing dark­ness.

It should come as no sur­prise that the Sages tell Hanukkah sto­ries about both the in­ex­tin­guish­able light of Jewish na­ture, and the univer­sal hu­man hope that dawn fol­lows the dark

THIS IS just a taste of what Hanukkah of­fers; there are many more sto­ries we could tell. Is that just an ac­ci­dent? Ab­so­lutely not.

As an ed­u­ca­tor, I know we need many sto­ries of our past in or­der to con­nect peo­ple to a mean­ing­ful present. As a spir­i­tual coun­selor I have dis­cov­ered how telling mul­ti­ple sto­ries about our­selves can re­frame the present and shape the fu­ture. As the cre­ator of the Jewish Story pod­cast, I com­bine these in­sights into a story that unites di­verse per­spec­tives in or­der to con­nect past, present and fu­ture.

The nar­ra­tive rich­ness of Hanukkah is not a co­in­ci­dence or the symp­tom of cul­tural frag­men­ta­tion. It is the very ho­li­ness that oc­curred “in those days at this time.”

So how do we ac­cess it to­day? The ho­li­ness of Hanukkah is that ev­ery­one can tell its story, and that it is never quite the same. If we can learn to tell it to­gether, per­haps we can spread the light of Hanukkah to the whole world.

(Pix­abay)

HANUKKAH GELT: ‘To the Sages of the Baby­lo­nian Tal­mud, who told the story hun­dreds of years later, the golden Meno­rah lies at the cen­ter of the plot.’

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

AN­TI­OCHUS III is glo­ri­fied on a coin, Bri­tish Mu­seum.

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