DECEMBER 14, 2017 – As we approach Hanukkah each year, I always feel a little bad for the Maccabees. On the one hand, they were terrifically successful at recapturing and rededicating the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and establishing a new Jewish festival. That was a remarkable achievement. However, their goal of freeing the Jewish community from Greek political and intellectual influences failed terribly.
At the conclusion of the transformative Zionist pamphlet first published in 1896, “The Jewish State,” Theodor Herzl writes: “I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabees will rise again!” Quite an ironic call from a secular Jew considering that the Maccabees were fighting not only for Jewish sovereignty, but also against adopting Greek ideas (like democracy) and practices (like participation in sports competition).
This modern Zionist Maccabean revival was envisioned specifically in support of a secular democracy. Thus the Maccabees became modern Zionist symbols for the type of Greek influence and assimilation their original revolt sought to eradicate.
Outside of the historical and political realm, Hanukkah is a drama of light. In the debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel about the proper way to light the menorah described in the Talmud, Shammai says one should light all eight lamps on the first night and remove one each subsequent night. Hillel, whose practice we follow today, says we begin with one on the first night and increase by one each night. One explanation the Gemara offers for Hillel’s practice is that in matters of holiness, we always increase rather than decrease.
Thus hundreds of years after the Maccabees established Hanukkah to commemorate their military victory, we are offered another explanation for the festival. It is in this passage that we first hear of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, something conspicuously missing from the Books of Maccabees. Hanukkah then becomes not just a commemoration, but an opportunity to enact a crescendo of light and holiness right now, in a time of darkness.
On the literal level, Hanukkah falls at the darkest time of year. While the eight days of Hanukkah do not always include the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, they do always include the new moon of Tevet. While not the longest night of the year, it is the moonless night closest to the winter solstice and so the longest darkest night. This darkness drama is diminished by the luxury of ubiquitous artificial light. Yet most of us are very aware of the shrinking daylight this time of year and its painfully languid return in the long winter months to come.
The challenge and opportunity of Hanukkah is not lighting the most candles, but bringing the most holiness we can into the world. Just as the light is both literal and metaphoric, so, too, is the darkness. Regardless of our particular perspectives and circumstances, we should all be able to see places where our love, compassion, and help can bring hope and healing.
In the second blessing before the Shema, we ask for a “new light” to illumine Zion. As with many of our prayers, I do not read this as a passive request for God to do something for us, but rather as an exhortation that we bring new light to Zion and to the world. This is what the Zionism Herzl envisioned, and what the festival of Hanukkah demands of us each winter.
We are never in control of what we create. Buildings will be built and destroyed; political meanings and legacies will be reversed and overturned. Yet in our homes, this darkest time of year, we increase the light. May our holiness, our light, our mitzvot, our compassion, and acts of loving kindness grow and continue to grow as our lasting legacy.
Rabbi Steven Lewis is the spiritual leader of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.