Since the time we were children, singing the traditional songs of Hanukkah has been a joyful and vital part of our celebration of this month’s Festival of Lights. Mi Y’malel – “Who Can Retell;” Al Ha-nissim – “For the Wondrous Miracles;” and Ma-oz Tzur – “Rock of Ages.” These are Hanukkah’s Greatest Hits! (Note that I have not included “I Have a Little Dreidel” for this listing. This is intentional.)
Therefore, it is quite surprising to consider that one of these beloved hymns of our people contains a somewhat radical concept which contradicts much of rabbinic teaching; an idea which was almost responsible for our abandoning the celebration of Hanukkah some 2,000 years ago.
Let us consider for a moment the song Mi Y’malel:
“Who can describe the heroic deeds of Israel, who can count them?
For in every age a hero will arise to save the people.
Hark! In ancient days at this season, the Maccabees redeemed and delivered us.
Therefore, in our day, Israel must unite, arise, to redeem ourselves!”
Why is this such a radical idea, Mi y’malel g’vurot yisrael: “Who can describe the heroic deeds of Israel?” Because this classic text is based on a verse from the Book of Psalms, only there, the Bible reads: “Mi y’maleyl g’vurot Adonai!” – “Who can describe the heroic deeds of the LORD?” (Psalms 106:2)
Our Hanukkah song is a radical statement because it attributes the heroism to Israel, to ourselves, whereas the Psalm verse and the weight of rabbinic tradition grant to God the credit that is due for saving the Jewish people. Our daily and Sabbath prayers refer to God as Go-eyl Yisrael – the Redeemer of Israel.” But this remarkable Hanukkah song instructs Israel to “unite, arise and to redeem ourselves.” Herein lies the heart of an internal conflict about the nature of Hanukkah, which has lasted for 2,000 years.
Who was the true hero of Hanukkah: God, or the Jewish people under the brave leadership of the Maccabees? When it came to formulating the proper remembrance of Hanukkah, the sages of our tradition, focusing on the spiritual dimension of the holiday, the role of God, emphasized the legend of that miraculous cruse of oil. They selected for our public, Haftarah reading the prophetic passage: “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit alone, saith the Lord.” (Zachariah 4:6)
Nonetheless, there is no getting around the fact that Hanukkah celebrates a military victory of our people, guided by leaders who took their own fate and future into their own hands. And therefore “Mi Y’malel” became the Hanukkah song par excellence for the modern Zionists, who sought to recapture the strength, the vitality, the determination of the Jewish body politic. When it came to the re-birth of the modern state of Israel, Hanukkah became an expression of determination that the Jewish people must “unite, arise, to redeem ourselves.”
Indeed, one of the most important lessons of our Hanukkah observance is to remember that God may inspire our work, motivate our battles, and be trusted as a fountainhead of strength. Yet the task of winning freedom or deliverance from oppression must be fulfilled by the courage and the sweat of human commitment. That task remains as vital for us today as it was for our ancestors more than 2,000 years ago.
Rabbi David J. Meyer is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.