If you stopped the average Jew on the street and asked her, “What miracle are we celebrating when we celebrate Hanukkah?” I suspect most would answer “The miracle of the oil.” Most of us learned this story in Hebrew school or from our families: when the Maccabees defeated the Greeks and wanted to light the menorah, they only found enough oil to last one night, but, miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights.
I’ll admit that, as a child and even a young adult, I’m not sure I ever really grasped the broader context of this miracle. I didn’t realize that the lighting of the menorah was part of the rededication of the Temple, the holiest place in the Jewish world, and the spiritual-cultural center of Jewish life. I didn’t understand the difference between destroying the Temple (which the Babylonians did in 586 B.C.E and the Romans did again in 70 C.E.) and defiling or desecrating the Temple, which the Assyrian Greeks did in the Hanukkah story. Destruction resulted in the expulsion and dispersion of the people and threatened their very existence; desecration left the structure and the people intact but made it impossible for them fulfill their spiritual purpose.
Another thing I did not realize until I paid closer attention to the Hanukkah story in our texts and our liturgy is that the oil is not the only miracle we are celebrating during the holiday. While the rabbis of the Talmud focus on the oil (no doubt to emphasize the spiritual-cultural dimension of the holiday for many understandable reasons), there is a special addition to the prayers on Hanukkah known as “Al Hanisim” (for the miracles) that focuses on the second miracle, the military victory of the Maccabees. In this prayer, we thank God for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.”
These are two different perspectives on miracles, on the Hanukkah story, and on its relevance for us today.
For many Jews today, especially those who have been inspired by modern Zionism and the rebuilding of the State of Israel, the divinely-inspired military victory of the Maccabees represents the survival and, ultimately, the triumph of the Jewish People over those who seek to destroy us. It represents the reclamation of Jewish power and self-determination and the rejection of weakness and passivity. In this version of the Hanukkah story, redemption is national and physical. We resist persecution and destruction.
Just two generations after the horrors of the Holocaust and with the resurgence of anti-Semitism globally and locally, it is hard not to appreciate the miracle of Jewish survival and the importance of Jewish self-preservation and self-determination. In the face of those who threaten us or seek to drive fear into our hearts, we will find inspiration in our ancestors, the Maccabees – and we – will not back down.
At the same time, for thousands of years, the miracle of the oil has resonated with Jews around the world whose power lay not in their military or political might, but rather in their spiritual fortitude. As God says in the Book of Zechariah, “not by power, nor by might, but rather by My Spirit …” While other powerful empires have risen and fallen, somehow the People of the Book have endured in the diaspora for thousands of years.
The significance of the Temple was not in the physical structure itself, but in the sacred worship that took place inside of it and, as a result, the Divine that dwelled within it. What good is a body without a soul? Similarly, what good is a People without a sacred purpose? The miracle of the oil is a reminder that we strive to survive not for survival’s sake, but precisely so we can bring light amid darkness and play our role in creating and building a better world.
The Hanukkah story is one of spiritual and cultural rededication. It is about a People’s will to hold onto their identities and their very essence in the face of powerful forces of assimilation and those who would crush our Jewish spirit.
Sometimes it can be hard to remember that the secret to sustaining a vibrant Jewish community is holding both aspects of the Hanukkah story and miracles together. It can be easy to focus only on survival, especially when we are feeling threatened here at home or when we fear for the security of Israel and Jews around the world.
Yet, I am reminded of how both Deborah Lipstadt and Bari Weiss have concluded their incredibly important, recent books on anti-Semitism. Lipstadt reminds us that we need to remember the “Joy along with the Oy” so we do not become a people that is defined by our victimhood. The “Oy” is real and we need to boldly fight anti-Semitism as well as hate and discrimination in all of their forms. And, the “Joy” represents positive, aspirational Jewish identity and refuses to allow those trying to destroy us to define us. Weiss challenges us not to fight anti-Semitism simply by becoming anti-anti-Semites. We need to be pro-Jewish, and to invest in creating positive, deep, compelling Jewish identities and Jewish culture, which is what we are fighting for in the first place.
If there is any community that will do both – secure our safety and well-being and invest in vibrant, deep, meaningful Jewish life – it will be our Greater Boston Jewish community. May we find the courage and inspiration to rededicate ourselves to this sacred work as we celebrate the Festival of Lights this year.
Rabbi Marc Baker is the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.