There’s a little 6-year-old Marci that is bouncing up and down at the thought of Chanukah approaching.
Maybe you’ve got one of these “inner children” who is also excited. I close my eyes, and I can see my family’s dining room table covered by multiple menorahs. There was one for each of us – some were family heirlooms, some were Sunday School art projects made from egg containers. We dimmed the lights, struck matches, and lit each shamash. We began to sing, Baruch atah Adonai…” It was so magical each year, and it still is (even if I don’t get eight brand-new Atari games anymore).
Chanukah, as one of our tradition’s newer holidays (new being a relative term), has a conflicted place in our lives. For many modern families, it is just the Jewish answer to Christmas. I’m reminded of Kyle on South Park singing “I’m a Jew, a lonely Jew, on Christmas…” There are certainly lots of similarities: we all have a chance to buy presents, decorate our homes, and celebrate together. But there’s so much more to Chanukah than just something for us to do when the rest of the country is celebrating Christmas. It is an inspiring, meaningful holiday that has much to teach us about our past, as well as our future.
First, there’s the story about the oil. Spoiler alert: I’m about to tell you the truth about the oil story, but I don’t want to ruin your conceptualization of the holiday if you don’t want it changed. The miracle of the oil is a beautiful tale. As you might recall, the heroes of the tale, the Maccabees, around 200 BCE, had fought long and hard to reclaim the Temple in Jerusalem as our own (it had been captured by the Syrian armies and was defiled). Once the Temple was back in Jewish hands, they cleaned it up, and wanted to relight the menorah. Unfortunately, they only found enough oil to burn it for one day. But, lo and behold, a miracle occurred, and the tiny bit of oil lasted, somehow, for eight crazy nights. And, thus, the miracle of Chanukah.
This would all be fine and good, and a perfectly meaningful reason to celebrate a festival, if it was the whole story. But, oh, there is so much more to it! The story of the oil doesn’t appear in Jewish texts until nearly 700 years later! We first learn of the oil miracle in the Babylonian Talmud (BT Shabbat 21b) in 500 CE. The tale of the Maccabees is recorded in an apocryphal book of the Bible, 2nd Maccabees, and it relays a different miracle altogether. There’s no mention of the oil. Rather, we learn of the miraculous victory of the small army of Maccabees over the enormous Syrian army. So, you might wonder why Chanukah is eight days. It turns out that, during the time that the Syrians held the Temple, our Jewish ancestors were unable to bring their Sukkot harvest to Jerusalem. Thus, Chanukah is, in a way, a belated Second Sukkot – they brought their harvest later, and thus it lasted for the days of the holiday of Sukkot.
So, why create the story of the oil? Why not just celebrate the Maccabean victory? Think of the moral of each tale, and who the hero is in each story. In the military victory, we have human beings who challenge authority and fight for justice. Their success is incredible, and God probably helped them in their efforts, but it is still a tale of human heroism. It inspires us to take on our own oppressors, and gives us hope that we might win. In the oil story, humans are absent. Instead, God is the hero, and God makes the whole miracle happen.
As Rabbi Manuel Gold writes in a Reform Judaism Magazine article called, “In Search of a Miracle,”
The Jews of Palestine, by and large, continued to favor activism, which often took the form of subtle literary derogation of the oppressor. In contrast, and perhaps because the ruling authorities typically gave them the right to self government, the Jews of Babylonia tended to favor accommodation, declaring, “The law of the government is the law” (“dina de’malchuta, dina”), a dictum that occurs nine times in the Talmud.
Thus, for the Jews of Babylonia, the Chanukah story of the Maccabees’ victorious struggle presented a problem: their young people might be influenced by the Maccabee model to become “activist” opponents of authority. It is at this point, six centuries after the Maccabean victory, that the miracle of the “little jar of oil” finally makes an appearance in the sacred literature. The festival of Chanukah had become so firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the people, it was impossible to eliminate. So the Babylonian Jews changed the miracle story from the military victory against overwhelming odds to the little jar of oil that lasted eight days.
In the end, it is up to each one of us which story is more compelling. My point is not that the Oil Miracle is not important – it has been part of our heritage for 1500 years! – but, rather, that it is not the whole story. We have an opportunity to teach our children that Jews are NOT always the victims, and we are NOT always persecuted. We have stories in our tradition that demonstrate Jewish strength, faith, and courage.
As we approach Chanukah this year, may we all place faith in God when we most need it, and faith in ourselves whenever we can. And may we be blessed with light, joy, and peace.