The first night of Chanukah 5768.
Chanukah, which began at sundown yesterday evening, is a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. Unlike the festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot, instructions for its observance are not in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. And unlike Purim, the origins of which are the subject of the Book of Esther, it is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, it’s a significant celebration in its own right, for it celebrates the Right to Be Different.
You may have heard a lot of hoo-hah about Chanukah being all about the miracle of the oil. When the victorious Jewish forces reclaimed the Temple from the Greco-Syrians who had defiled it, there was only enough purified oil to last one day...yet it lasted eight full days, long enough for new supplies of oil to be prepared. And therefore, Jews eat poorly digestible, fattening fried foods unto this day.
Chanukah is indeed about a miracle, but not one so neat, pretty, and wrapped up with a bow.
Chanukah is about the miraculous victory of a vastly-outnumbered band of Jewish guerrillas against a superior Greco-Syrian force, in a struggle for the spiritual future of the Jewish nation. For unlike Haman and the Persians of the Purim story, the Greco-Syrians under Antiochus “Epimanes” Epiphanes were not out to exterminate the Jews physically; their goal was to crush Jewish observance. In the ideal world according to Antiochus, everyone would worship the same gods, observe the same customs, eat the same foods. In this wise, he was the Ann Coulter of 165 B.C.E.
But, despite the large proportion of Hellenized (read “assimilated”) Jews, there were a few who would have none of Antiochus’s New Judean World Order...and they took up arms against it. And, amazingly, they won.
The story is recounted in the daily liturgy:
“...You gave the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few, and the defiled into the hands of the pure, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the malicious into the hands of those who engage in Your Torah. And You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your universe; and to Your nation, Israel, did You grant a great salvation and liberation, as on this day. And subsequently Your children came to Your holy abode, and they cleared out Your Palace, and they purified Your Temple, and they kindled lights in the courtyards of Your holy place. And they established these eight days of Chanukah in order to give thanks and praise to Your great name.”Sure, it’s history as written by the victors, but think on what it really means to us. Today.
It means that the practice of Judaism - Torah study and observance - survived the Seleucid period, paving the way for an additional 2000+ years of Jewish history...and the development of two major daughter religions, Christianity and Islam.
It means that there’s precedent for a world in which a minority culture is able to live within an all-surrounding majority culture without being assimilated out of existence...in which you can Dare To Be Different.
Oil, schmoil. The mere existence of that world - the world in which we live today, here in the Civilized West - is the real miracle of Chanukah.
Good enough reason for me to light a few candles.