We Jews know that stories are not simple things. As a people, we tell tales that place us in the drama of world history and connect us with a common past and a shared future. Our national stories challenge us as individuals and as a community; they provide us with contexts to work out moral dilemmas, and help us reflect collectively on what it means to live life well.
We also tell stories about our personal histories. Each of us has a story that narrates the important events and experiences that we believe explain who we are in the world. Sometimes the stories we tell about ourselves expand our opportunities and at times these same stories create self-imposed obstacles.
Stories are never just stories. We know that narratives—both personal and national—are not only about the past. We Jews know that the stories we tell help create our future. Our stories explain who we are and how we want to be in the world.
It is in this context that I would like to reflect upon the stories of Hanukkah.
Which story do we tell and how do we use these accounts to create meaning in our lives?
The first story of Hanukkah appears in the book of Maccabees (circa 100 BCE). The Seleucid King, Antiochus IV, imposed drastic reforms on the Jewish population of Judea, prohibiting the observance of the laws of the Torah. Brazenly, he dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the pagan god Zeus. The book of Maccabees dramatically describes the events leading up to the outbreak of the revolt:
Then the king's officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the city of Modein to make the Jews offer sacrifices. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled in the crowds . . . A Jew went up before the eyes of all of them to offer a sacrifice on the pagan altar in Modein as the king had commanded. Mattathias saw him and was filled with zeal and his heart was stirred. He was very properly roused to anger and ran up and slaughtered the Jew upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice and he tore down the altar . . . Then Mattathias cried out in a loud voice in the town and said, "Let everyone who is zealous for the Law and stands by the Covenant come out after me!" (I Maccabees 2:15-27)
With this call the insurgency had begun. Mattathias and his sons then
mustered a force and struck down Jewish sinners in their anger and in their wrath those who disobeyed the Law and the rest fled to the Gentiles to save themselves. And Mattathias and his friends went about and tore down the altars, and forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised children that they found within the borders of Israel . . . They rescued the Law from the hands of Gentiles and their kings . . . (I Maccabees 2:44–48)
Judah Maccabee led "these mighty warriors of Israel"—a small, radical group—who fought heroically and ruthlessly to protect Jewish traditions. In their efforts to guard the Torah, the Maccabees were ready to strike Jews and non-Jews alike. In the autumn of 164 BCE, this band of freedom fighters retook Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple exclusively to the God of Israel. This is an exciting story about human agency, zealotry for the law, and nationalism. At various moments in Jewish history, this story has been particularly compelling. It should not come as a great surprise then to learn that Theodor Herzl concluded his book The Jewish State with the words: "the Maccabees shall rise again."
The Rabbis were profoundly aware of the power of stories and they would not tell that story.
The Rabbis of the rabbinic period (the first centuries of the Common Era) present a radically different narrative than the story detailed in the book of Maccabees. Gone are the personalities of Mattathias and Judah the Maccabee. In their stead, we are told of a small vial of pure oil that contained just enough oil to stay lit for one night. The Rabbis tell us of a miracle that occurred, during which the oil burned for eight days (see BT Shabbat 21b). God is the hero of this telling and the violent actions of the Maccabees are gone from Jewish history. This rabbinic story furthers the particular piety that the Rabbis sought now to nourish in the communities they were building. They would not tell stories of religious revolt or Jews slaughtering Jews. The Rabbis would tell a story that emphasized rabbinic values: faith and God's love as manifested in the miracle of the oil.
These are two of the most popular stories of Hanukkah, but I would like to present a third story. The rabbis never explicitly link the following passage with the holiday of Hanukkah, but the connections are intriguing. A story is told about Adam—the first human being—in the talmudic Tractate Avodah Zarah:
Our rabbis taught: when the first man (Adam) saw the daylight hours were becoming shorter and shorter, he said, "Woe is me! Perhaps because I have sinned, the world is becoming dark around me and is returning to chaos (tohu va-vohu). This is the death sentence declared upon me by Heaven!" He sat for eight days in fasting and prayer. After the winter solstice when he saw the days becoming longer and longer, he said, "This is simply the way of the world!" He went and made an eight-day festival . . . He established them for the sake of Heaven and they established them for idolatry. (BT Avodah Zarah 8a)
This talmudic story invites us to imagine what it must have been like to experience the first winter. The nights grew longer, the days grew shorter; it was difficult to stay warm. Adam feared that God was returning the world to the tohu va-vohu of pre-Creation. As it turns out, Adam's fears at this moment were unjustified, but God would destroy the world with the flood. Believing he was the cause of the darkness, Adam prayed and fasted. When he began to see that the days were growing longer and nights were growing shorter, Adam realized that this is simply how the world works. There are seasons, and some periods of the year have more light and others have more darkness. It is because of this realization that Adam made an eight-day festival. Adam established these eight days celebrating the return of the sun as an offering of gratitude to God. However, "they"—the Romans—celebrated this winter solstice holiday with idolatry. (Indeed, the Romans did have a week-long festival called Saturnalia during the same period of the year.)
Here is a rabbinic text explaining the origins of some unknown eight-day festival, smack in the darkest part of winter, celebrating the return of light to the world . . . hmmm . . . curious. I don't think I am going out on a limb to propose the idea that one of the origins of the holiday of Hanukkah has nothing to do with the Maccabees, nor the miracle of oil. These are highly particularistic stories. Rather, Hanukkah has, in its distant past, the most universal of messages. It is a holiday about experiencing fear, vulnerability, and darkness and not being consumed. It is a holiday that reminds us that light and security will return again, as sure as we know darkness will return. These are the cycles of life. The challenge is remembering that the darkness will, in fact, retreat. So this too, like the story of the oil, is a story of profound faith.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.