What do you think of when I write the word, “Chanukah?” The first image that comes to most of us is one of presents. The next image is one of delicious latkes with applesauce, sour cream or both on top. Some of us might see a dreidel and the chocolate gelt wrapped in faux gold, as we recall playing the game with our cousins during a family Chanukah party. There are those of us who will see the menorah and its candles, as we watched the candles being lit and heard the songs of Chanukah being sung. How many of us, however, bring to mind the victory of Judah the Maccabee and his small band of Jewish warriors in the struggle for freedom on the land of Israel against the oppressive forces of King Antiochus?
The miracle of Chanukah, which we are taught in Hebrew school is the reason for Chanukah and its eight days of celebration, is the miracle of the small cask of oil that was supposed to burn only for one day but lasted for eight instead. While this is a lovely story, and does have a way of exciting the imagination of young people, it is most probably nothing more than a story. In does not even appear in any Jewish source until the Talmud written hundreds of years after the Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE.
The events of the Maccabean wars are found in a set of books called appropriately the Books of the Maccabees. Out of these 4 books, the first one was written as the events of the revolt enfolded. In this book there is no mention of the little bit of oil lasting for eight days but there is a description of the revolt by Judah, his brothers and followers. It does describe their entry into the holy Temple in Jerusalem, their cleansing of the Temple for worship and their first service of dedication (which is what the word Chanukah means) that lasted for eight days. It lasted for eight days since the last holiday that they were unable to worship in the Temple was Sukkot, that is celebrated for eight days.
The true miracle of Chanukah is, therefore, the victory of this small band of soldiers for their freedom against the greatest and most powerful army in the world at that time. It was, I am sure, a hard-fought battle as it actually lasted for seven years. It was not until 160 BCE that Judah was successful in freeing the entire country from Greek-Syrian occupation.
This is then what I think of when I hear the word, “Chanukah.” Images of courage, of valor and of faith come to my kind embodied in the image of these Jewish warriors. Yes, at the end of the holiday I do have wonderful memories each year of the menorah and the beautiful candles, of songs and presents, and of my wife’s delicious latkes. What does stay with me after the holiday is done, however, are two quotations from the Chanukah literature. These inspire me to appreciate the true miracle of Chanukah that can be and must be relived every day and every year, unlike the miracle of oil that is a one-time event.
The first quote comes from the First Book of the Maccabees and it was said by Judah to inspire his troops. He was recorded as saying, “Let everyone who is zealous for the Law and who remains faithful to the Covenant, follow me”( I Maccabees 2:27) The second quote comes from the Haftarah reading for the Shabbat of Chanukah from the Book of Zechariah (2:4), Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.”
Judah’s words of encouragement to his troops are, interestingly enough, not words about going into battle but rather words reminding them as to why they are going into battle. He is telling them that they are putting their lives on the line for sake of keeping alive their Jewish way of life as expressed through a life of Torah, its rituals and beliefs. This is, in truth, what Chanukah and all the holiday and holy days of the year are all about — keeping the traditions alive. If we do not do this, who will?
Zechariah’s words let us know that this battle is accomplished not only by an adherence to the practice of a Jewish life but by a faith in God that is the underlying theme of this life. It is this faith in God that gave Judah and his men courage to wage the battle they did. It is this faith that gives each of us, regardless of our age, the strength to wage the same battle to continue the traditions and practices of our people, such as the celebration of this wonderful holiday, in spite of the pressures of our world today, not do them.
May God bless each and everyone of us with a most beautiful Chanukah celebration. The spirit of Judah lives on through us! L’chaim. To Life!
Rabbi Dr. Steven A Moss is Rabbi Emeritus of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, NY, a synagogue he has served since 1972. He recently retired to Boynton Beach, FL, and is serving as rabbi of Temple Sinai of Palm Beach County. He has also authored, God Is With Me; I Have No Fear, and A Poetical Journey Through Sefirat HaOmer.