The True Miracle of Chanukah
What is the miracle of Chanukah? The classic answers: the underdog Jews, led by the Macabbees, defeated the armies of Antiochus; then, they rededicated the Temple and relit the lamp with oil sufficient only for one day, but it burned for eight days while new oil could be produced. Miracles no doubt, but I think the true miracle of Chanukah is that they lit the lamp at all. Let me explain.
Many people consider the story of Chanukah not so much as a battle of the Jews versus Antiochus, but instead as a civil war between the traditional Macabbean Jews and the more modern Hellenistic Jews. It is a cautionary tale for our times. Hellenism did not try to stamp out other religions, but rather influence them to assimilate their ways and become more "Greek." Sound familiar? The Macabbees represented a movement to preserve traditional ways of observance. This Macabbeean effort brought the armies of Antiochus in on the side of the Hellenistic Jews.
Judaism, at its core, is a counter-culture religion. Our role has been to model a life of doing what is right and not what is in vogue. Three interrelated, fundamental themes of Judaism stand out and illustrate this point.
1. Championing the underdog. The other day, I was watching a meaningless football game. Meaningless in that I had no rooting interest. I found myself rooting for the underdog. The question struck me, why? Are human beings wired to root for the downtrodden or to back the favorite? More often than not, I believe we are conditioned to back winners and power. Judaism stands in sharp contrast to that impulse. Our foundation myth revolves around a bunch of slaves escaping and becoming a powerful nation. Everywhere the Torah talks about safeguarding the widow, orphan and stranger. For, as the Torah repeatedly says, "you were once strangers in a strange land." Our system of justice reflects this bias for the underdog. That is counterculture.
2. Right makes might, not might makes right. From the moment Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom, our heritage is one of speaking truth to power – even arguing with God. Chutzpah? Perhaps. However, standing up to authority in the ancient world and today often poses more risk than reward for the advocate of justice. In most cases the powers that be crush those who question them. Judaism demands we do it anyway. This Shabbat we read the famous lines of the prophet Zechariah in the haftorah, "Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit alone."
3. Every individual counts. When man is created, the Torah specifically points out two things: one, that man was created singularly and we all come from one person and two, that we are created in God's image. Our common origin makes us equal in our heritage. No one person is worth more than another. And if we are created in God's image, then each individual has value. These ideas were and are revolutionary. Judaism rose up in a world of human sacrifice and slavery. We still live in that world today. Our job is to fight for our belief wherever it has yet to take hold.
When the band of Macabbees lit the lamp in the Temple, they were reaffirming these principles in an era when it would have been much easier to just go along and Hellenize the religion. Lighting the Menorah was a rededication to taking up the central causes of Judaism. To me, the fact that they chose to light the oil was a miracle. Tonight, when millions of Jews light their Chanukiot, we are joining that miracle and pledging to rededicate our lives to upholding the values we hold so dear. We join the mission of Judaism that includes championing the underdog, that right makes might, and that each person counts. When we take that leap and light our candles, we allow God to enter the world as well, and we hope that just as God amplified one day's worth of oil into eight, so too will God amplify our actions and give them greater effect. Happy Chanukah!