It's about the Oil
Rabbi Hal Schevitz -Congregation Or Atid
The story of Hanukkah presents us with two interconnected stories, both of which have much to teach us: the revolt of the Maccabees against the Greeks, and the Miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight days. The history of the event is chronicled in the First and Second Books of Maccabees, books not preserved in Jewish Bibles, but collected in what today is called the “The Apocrypha.” In addition to a history of the events of the Maccabean revolt, each of these books tell us why we celebrate the holiday for eight days.
The First Book of Maccabees relates that the eight-day re-dedication celebration echoed the eight-day dedication of the First Temple by King Solomon. The Second Book of Maccabees tells us that the Maccabees celebrated the eight-day Sukkot later in the year, decreeing that henceforth, these days would always be celebrated with psalms of thanksgiving and feasting. The most famous story about why Hanukkah lasts eight days comes from the Talmud, where the Rabbis tell us that when the Maccabees entered the Temple to purify it, there was only one day’s amount of oil left, which lasted long enough to light the Great Menorah for eight days. Which version is correct?
All of them. However, the story of the miracle of the oil speaks to us in ways in which the military/historical events might not. Unfortunately, within a few decades of the revolt, the descendants of the Maccabees became as corrupt as the leaders against whom they were fighting. Within 200 years, the Jewish State and the Temple were destroyed, and the Jewish People were exiled.
The story of the oil is not only an explanation for eight days. It is also a meta-observation on the importance of celebrating Hanukkah. If we only look to the military and historical aspects of Hanukkah, it is a vessel with only limited potential for celebration. Once the geo-political effects of that military victory no longer existed, there might not be a reason to celebrate the holiday. If we understand the holiday through the miracle of the oil, Hanukkah becomes a multi-valenced and eternal holiday based on timeless values: God is on the side of the righteous; a little bit can be more than enough; the weak can triumph over the strong; victory can be achieved against impossible odds; we must maintain our distinct faith, traditions, and culture in a world that wants us to assimilate. We still connect Hanukkah back to its historical and social context, but it also transcends history and is meaningful in our own time. When you light your Ḥanukkiyot this evening, I invite you to hold all of these stories and carry all of these values as one, connecting past, present, and future!
Ḥag Urim Same’aḥ! Happy Festival of Lights! Happy Hanukkah!