Adding to the inherent complexity of the Hanukkah story (yes – it’s really complicated!) is the attempt to discern the real true hero (or heroes) of the chronicle. After all, saving the Jewish people, culture, faith and tradition from annihilation wasn’t simply a matter of “it happened,” despite our seasonal and the dreidel’s own catchphrase: “A Great Miracle Happened There.”
The first candidate as the “Hero” of Hanukkah would be the Almighty One, as expressed by the beloved Hanukkah hymn, “Maoz Tzur.” The traditional Hebrew tune is often rendered with the English lyrics: “And Your word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.” The story of the miracle of the oil doubles down on the role played On High in the regaining and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
But we also need to recognize the human element, and here’s where Judah and the Maccabees are given their just recognition for leading the military battles for the sake of religious freedom, without which the Jewish people would not have survived “bayamim ha-hem bazman hazeh” – in those days as in our own. As the Zionist Hanukkah hymn, “Mi Y’malel” insists, “Who can recount the mighty deeds of Israel … for in days of yore and in our own age, a ‘Maccabee’ has arisen to save us! So, in our own day, let us arise and unite to be redeemed!”
In the past, I’ve explored these two complementary and competing views of our Festival narrative. But this year, I’m thinking of two other unnamed but vital heroes of our Hanukkah narrative, in relation to the beloved legend of that single jar of consecrated olive oil, that miraculously remained alight through the entire eight days of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Who is the hero of this beloved Hanukkah tradition?
The first candidate for heroic status might be whoever it was who took upon themselves the seemingly useless and hopeless task of hiding that tiny jug containing but a single day’s fuel for maintaining the Ner Tamid, the perpetual flame to burn above the holy altar. Imagine – with the Temple lost and the pagan Assyrian forces taking control of our sacred spaces – some nameless Israelite found the courage and foresight to hide just a bit of purified oil. Just in case … Just in hope … Perhaps in faith.
As a second candidate for our Hanukkah hero, we also might consider another anonymous soul, a survivor of the war who, instead of decrying the lack of fuel at the ready for rekindling the sacred flame, chose to set that one portion of oil alight, hoping beyond hope in whatever might happen next. It was an act of irrational determination and unbridled conviction. It was heroic.
Were it not for these two nameless people, our Hanukkah story would never have come to pass; would not be our inheritance, and would not be our own inspiration to lead into the future.
Of course, the Divine intervention for which we might hope will always be beyond our human powers. And who of us might become as modern-day Maccabbees, heroic military leaders defeating by force and cunning those who would destroy our people and faith?
But perhaps we can emulate those anonymous Jews from more than two thousand years ago, who against all odds chose to preserve the oil and to light that flame in hope and in faith, which lasted far beyond any expectation or even hope. Indeed, it is within our power to show courage in preserving the essentials of our cherished faith traditions, as if concealing that single jar of consecrated oil ready, to be passed down and kindled in a future yet to occur in the generations to come.
Chag Urim Sameach! Wishing a joyous Festival of Lights to our entire community! Θ
Rabbi David J. Meyer is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.