3 Stories and the Revisionist Message of Hanukkah
As we enter this festive time of the year, it’s hard to feel light-hearted and happy. The lights are up in the city, twinkling in the early darkness of the season. Fragrant doughnuts are offered in every bakery in new, tempting flavors. Yet, the heaviness of threat and violence lurks in the back of my mind, and I feel unsettled even while I continue as if all is normal.
What will I tell my children as we light the Hanukkah candles this year? What is the message, the comfort, the hope I can offer them in our actions? Hanukkah comes to us in three different stories, yet the message that resonates the most with me is the message that comes from their stark differences.
The first story is about the evil Seleucid Empire and Antiochus IV who persecuted our people, the hero Judah Maccabee and his family who fought Antiochus, and their unexpected and amazing victory. It is a story of glorious nationalism and Israel regaining its sovereignty in the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty. The Maccabean story is one of militarism, power and might.
The second story that we recall on Hanukkah is the Maccabean rededication of the Temple after their victory. The Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) comes to us in First and Second Maccabees, books that are not a part of the Jewish or Protestant Bible, but are included in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. We read about the Temple’s cleansing. After the Temple is liberated from the Greeks, the Maccabees hold festivities to celebrate this event.
Then there is another story, the one we most often recall about the miraculous eight-day oil supply that features nowhere in the previous stories. This story was added to our tradition several hundred years later.
The Hasmonean Dynasty was cruel, and the rabbis disapproved of their commemoration of Maccabean militarism and zealotry. As a result, they decided to rewrite the events in Tractate Shabbat. The story we most often remember on Hanukkah belongs to them. Yes, the Maccabees had a great victory; yes, the Temple was rededicated; and the focus of the story should be God, not militarism. The rabbis tell us that when the Maccabees went to the Temple, they saw that the ritual oil needed to light the Temple menorah was desecrated by the Seleucids. They only found one small flask of undefiled oil. They used it, and miraculously, it burned for eight days, just the amount of time needed to press and prepare new oil.
The rabbis continued their dialogue as Shamai and Hillel discussed the best way to light the Hanukkah candles. Shamai suggested that the first day, we light all eight candles, and each subsequent night we light one less. Hillel disagreed, arguing that we should do it in reverse -- the number should ascend, from one candle the first night, to eight the last night. We must grow in our ability to bring forth light, D’maalin b’kodesh v’ein moridin, for in matters of holiness, we should go up, not down.
When I look around me, I see a number of competing narratives in Israeli culture. Some embrace the militaristic nationalist story of glory and victory. Others focus on the religious or miraculous parts of the story. To me, the primary message of Hanukkah is neither nationalist victory nor religious rededication, but the fact that the rabbis acted as revisionists, adapting, retelling and refocusing the story. Indeed, the emphasis of Hanukkah today is primarily the miracle, a testament to the power and importance of reform, an appeal to focus the holiday on a miraculous God rather than a zealous nationalist group. It beseeches us not to exchange what is for what was, but to look for what could be.
The revisionist message in Hanukkah’s retelling is what I pass on to my children this year as we near the darkness of the Winter Solstice. We must be willing to look at the past differently, re -envision it when it leads to blood and destruction, find ways to bring more light in the world, and increase in holiness. We need to be willing to reshape Judaism, Messianic Judaism, nationalism, our own state. We need to present an alternative to the violence of yesterday and look for small miracles that are worth remembering. As we do so, the warmth and brightness can seep into our weary souls, giving us strength to continue, beckoning us to the future to increase our light.