Hanukkah is a sweet little holiday. Eight nights, eight candles, and if you’re lucky, eight gifts. There are fun songs and games and lots of homemade, fried foods. If you’re a Jewish kid in a Christian neighborhood, like most are, you get to bask in the sheer length of your holiday and if you’re in an interfaith family, as I was, it serves as a fabulous lead-in for Christmas. The story is straightforward and what it lacks in depth and adornment, it makes up for in its elegant simplicity.
In its popular form, the Hanukkah story tells us that the Jews fought off an enemy, securing their freedom and regaining their Temple. They had to rededicate the Temple and needed 8 days-worth of oil to do it, but had only one. The oil burned, miraculously, for the entire 8 days. Therefore, we celebrate.
Most years, I leave it there. It’s beautiful. It offers hope. It gives us reason not to despair. It illustrates an act of faith. It brings us light as we push ever closer to the solstice. This year, I decided, though, to give the story a re-reading. It’s good to revisit the old stories, the ones we know so well we don’t even listen to them anymore. I put on a new lens, asking myself what, aside from the obvious, can this story teach us this year.
The story of Hanukkah begins like every story, that is, it starts long before. Long before any one thing in the story happened, culture happened, clashes of personality and national expectations were ongoing. There were families doing their best and people struggling in an ever-changing political landscape, as they’d been doing for as long as anyone can remember.
In this story, the story we’ve come to know as the Hanukkah story, we have a king in Syria, another in Egypt, and we have a ruling family in Jerusalem; those we call the Maccabees. We also have Jews who believe one thing and Jews who believe another, and ultimately, the story is written after a battle that allows one group to declare themselves the winner. And, as always, they get to write the history, and it’s their festivals we celebrate. It’s a winner-take-all game and the Maccabees won.
This story, though, didn’t end with joy or clarity for the winner. Not entirely. That’s because this battle wasn’t as clean as we’d like our battles to be. Often when we tell this story, we neglect some of the messy parts. The Hanukkah story of my childhood and of popular culture tells us that 40 years earlier, Jerusalem had been taken by the Syrians who emulated Greek culture, and that their king, Antiochus, was doing everything he could to eliminate Judaism because he saw it as an affront to his leadership. Praying to another god was a betrayal both to him and to his people and his many Gods. It was also potentially treasonous.
To ensure loyalty, Antiochus sent his soldiers to the city-state of Jerusalem to put an end to Jewish sacrifices, and to dedicate the Jewish Temple to Zeus, a task they achieved after much blood was spilled. This would be a nice good-guy, bad-guy story if all the Jews agreed this addition of the Greek gods was a terrible thing. Here’s where it gets messy. Some Jews were just fine praying to Zeus. They didn’t mind a little religious flexibility. Give to Antiochus what is his. A battle started to remove the occupying forces and reclaim the Temple. The first Maccabean kill was of another Jew who was praying at the altar of a god other than Yahweh. The first person the Maccabees killed wasn’t Syrian. It wasn’t an invader. It wasn’t a soldier. It was a Jew who was seeking compromise.
The Maccabees, representing the more orthodox, were one side of significant civil disagreement. On the other side were also Jews. When the Maccabees won the battle to reclaim the Temple, the victory against Antiochus was decisive, but the one against other Jews was a little more vague.
The Hanukkah story told often says that Antiochus desecrated the Temple and the Maccabees drove them out and rededicated the Temple to Yahweh, their own god, but in order to do that, they needed oil to burn the sacred flame. They had enough oil for a single day, and it would take 8 days to make more. They lit the flame in faith and hope and started making the oil. The flame stayed lit for the entire 8 days. It was a miracle.
This miracle gave the Maccabees the decisive, spiritual, religious victory they needed. Running the Syrians out was a political victory, but that didn’t solve the split within Judaism. There was civil unrest. People disagreed about what should be valued. They weren’t in alignment about what it meant to live with people of different faiths. The miracle, the story of the oil burning for 8 days, that put the Maccabees in alignment with God. That was what they needed. God is on our side. We won the battle, and we won the Temple, and God blessed our victory.
We live in a religiously pluralistic society and we are members of a pluralistic faith in a community church founded on the notion of pluralism. It’s easy for me to empathize with anyone who wants to accommodate a wide spectrum of faith traditions and practices. I effortlessly see myself on the side of the Jews who’d prefer to visit the Temple of Zeus than to kill another human being. The Maccabees, according to history, were ruthless. We know they were conservative. I can see how some people would have preferred this battle didn’t happen and were sort of annoyed that the Maccabees won. Like, now, they think everything they did was right.
But, unity matters and no one wants their land to be occupied, to have to live under foreign rule. No one wants to give up their traditions and culture and religion by force. Like I said, this is messier than the traditional story. And when that battle was over everyone was tired. Because even when you get to the end, there’s work to do. There’s rebuilding. You have to reimagine your society, unoccupied. You have to visualize a new world and then get to the construction of it.
There was enough oil for one day, but we’ve got eight days of work. I’m guessing that feeling of depletion was common for the Jewish people who had been occupied for decades, and on and off for centuries. There’s more work than there is fuel. We’re down to our last little bit and it won’t be enough. I think a lot of people here in the US and around the world are feeling similarly. There’s not enough to keep us going. I read yesterday that bagel stores here in the city are on their last week of supplies, thanks to the Great Cream Cheese Shortage of 2021. They’re looking for a Hanukkah miracle of their own. Banks and shops tell us there aren’t enough coins. Toy stores tell us there aren’t enough hot wheels. Restaurants tell us there aren’t enough workers. I just learned there’s a serious minister shortage with far more churches looking than people willing to serve them. Add that to mask mandates that limit human interaction and anti-vaxers who promise to extend the crisis as long as possible, and I’m betting we all know that feeling of exhaustion the Jews would have been feeling even after the Syrians left Jerusalem.
All religious traditions have similar stories. Not enough, then there was. Not enough oil, not enough food, not enough hope or time or money or love. And then there was a miracle. The great Jewish theologian Martin Buber once described miracles as awe-inspiring natural events recorded “by extremely enthusiastic participants”. The experience of deprivation is common. It’s one every human can relate to. And the idea that suddenly, when all hope was lost, when we were going to lose or starve or whatever…it all changed unexpectedly.
The Jews of the 2nd century, BCE, were depleted. Their land had been occupied. They were at odds with each other. They won a battle, but it was bloody and there was significant loss of life and property. Then there was a miracle. There was enough. They got what they needed. And this served as a pivot point, a way and reason and evidence for turning away from despair. They rededicated their Temple. They started over.
At the moment, Covid feels like an occupying force. And, our people feel as divided as it seems the Jews were under Antiochus. I can see the lure of a miracle, although to be honest, I think vaccinations might be that miracle. We didn’t have enough. We conquered the invader. But, we’re tired, broken, and so exhausted and disoriented it’s hard to imagine rebuilding, or even if it’s time to rebuild or if we should be waiting for another attack.
The story of Hanukkah tells us to wait just a little bit. Just wait. Sit in the softly lit darkness. Do what you have to do, whatever’s next, whatever’s in front of you. It will all come together. You’ll get what you need. Be gentle. Work together. Move carefully. The flame isn’t large enough to light the way into the future, so hold on to faith and remember that we’ve been here before. We’ve been faced with empty bottles, empty hands, empty bellies before and we were OK. Despair was unwarranted. The oil stayed lit. The people came back together. They rededicated their Temple and themselves to their God and to each other.
As we light the candles on our menorahs tonight, the 7th night of the holiday, we can acknowledge that this is a story that started 2,200 years ago, but it’s also a story we’re still living. It’s a miracle of oil burning in the Temple when there was none, and it’s a miracle we’re awaiting as we watch our own supplies dwindle. It’s a story of a divided people who found their way back to each other, as we learn again how to create unity from our own schisms. It’s a story of dispatching an occupying force as we, too, live under siege. Most of all, it’s a story of a people who did the best they could, who started a process they weren’t sure they could finish, who trusted their faith, their god, and each other to see them through, who learned, ultimately, there was enough, they would get what they needed, and that they weren’t alone.