We all know the story. During the Second Temple era the Syrian-Greek army occupied the land of Israel, defiled the Temple, and outlawed much of the practice of Judaism. The Maccabees, a small ragtag band of Temple priests saw that to save our way of life they had no choice but to rise up in revolt.
In a miraculous turn of events, the clerics defeated the mightiest army in the world, driving them off and restoring Jewish religious freedom. In rededicating the Temple, the Jews lit the menorah, which was a daily part of the Temple service. Remarkably, the last of the pure oil, which should have only been enough to last one night, lasted for eight nights, until they could produce more oil. In commemoration of this, we light candles, have parties and eat doughnuts.
Seriously? All this fuss about some slow-burning oil?
Don’t misunderstand, I believe in miracles. And I do believe that the aforementioned spontaneously non-combusting oil was indeed one. But is it so significant that we need to re-enact that miracle every year? Are there no more momentous miracles in this story for us to recall?
And, while I am spouting off in what might be construed as a distinctly unrabbinic fashion, let me ask this: Why, G-d? Why did You feel the need to have the lights burn extra long? Surely You don’t perform miracles just because You can? I like to think that miracles are performed for an important purpose. Labor negotiations with Pharaoh at an impasse? Sure, let’s have some plagues! Jews stuck between the Egyptians and the Red Sea? That’s a perfect spot for a suspension of the laws of nature. Boom. Miracle.
The Chanukah light revelation, however, appears to be rather gratuitous. What awful result would have happened if the oil which was enough to burn for one night had burned for, say…one night? It seems doubtful that the Jews would have said, “No miracle?!? That’s it, we’re out!” Certainly, their reaction would have been something more along the lines of, “Hey, that was awesome! Great start! We’re gonna do this again just as soon as we produce some more oil!”
So what’s the big message?
To answer this question, we have to understand a bit about what was going on before the Greeks showed up. Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (1561-1640) explains that at that point in history things hadn’t been going so well from a Jewish point of view. Jewish commitment was waning. Temple attendance was down. In a recurrent theme in Jewish history, when the Jews are disconnected from G-d our enemies show up. So low was Jewish engagement that many Jews went along with the Greeks, who, unlike most of our other oppressors, were more than happy to accept those Jews who were willing to replace Judaism with Greek pagan philosophy.
The tiny minority of Jews who took action were, in essence, saying that G-d is worth fighting for. Maybe they hadn’t been motivated earlier, but at this point they were ready to risk their very lives for the Jewish future. When it was all over, and the Jews had vanquished their persecutors, G-d wanted them to know that He was with them. He sent them a message through the extra light: When you rededicate yourself to Me, I notice. When you sacrifice to bring light to the world, you get to see more light.
Without question, our world today desperately needs more light. And we need to be the Maccabees. On Chanukah, there is a real potential for rededication in the air and we can re-experience the miraculous light of our history. Chanukah can be about so much more than candles, parties and doughnuts, if we just ask ourselves some questions: What am I doing to rededicate myself to G-d? How am I bringing more light to the world?
Answer that, and Chanukah becomes a turning point. Answer that, and our world will truly be a bright and beautiful place.
Rabbi Hillel Brody is director of community outreach at Yeshiva Elementary School.