Does Oil Really Matter, After Winning A War?
What Does Hanukkah Really Celebrate?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
We know that Hanukkah celebrates two events, yet lighting the menorah on Hanukkah is seen as the more significant event of the holiday. We could say that both the victory in the Maccabean War and the Hanukkah miracle have similar theological ideas, but didn't the war have a more significant outcome than the story of the menorah? What is the reason that we celebrate Hanukkah with candles?
As we search for what Hanukkah commemorates, we can see that the Maccabees’ victory rid them of the terrible forces of Antiochus and also of their own countrymen who had bought into the Greek view on life. But they didn’t win complete freedom and later entered into more dark times. While it is true that Judea won its independence nominally and they cleaned up the Temple, it might be seen as only a short, bright spot in Jewish history.
But there was something about the miracle of the menorah candles – an almost unnecessary miracle – that the sages who made Hanukkah a rabbinical holiday wanted us to focus on. Is it the humbleness of the menorah light that we are meant to commemorate so joyously? Is this what Hanukkah truly celebrates?
Rabbi Fohrman introduces the idea of a hidden text that may shed some light on what exactly Hanukkah is celebrating and what we commemorate through lighting Hanukkah candles.
Hi, it's Rabbi David Fohrman here. Hanukkah is upon us. It is a wonderful and joyous holiday, there are a lot of presents and there are candles and dreidels and latkes, and all those things; but frankly it's a difficult holiday for me to talk to you about, because if you have been around the block here with us at Aleph Beta, you know that I really like to discuss the ideas that emerge organically from Jewish texts. And, of course, the problem with Hanukkah is, it's the only real holiday in our calendar that doesn't come with a nice ready-made text to go along with it.
What Event Does Hanukkah Really Celebrate?
All the biblical holidays, they are all enumerated in various Biblical texts. If you think about even the Rabbinic holidays, the other major Rabbinic holiday and Purim, that has its own text – Esther. But when it comes to Hanukkah, you're just sort of plain out of text.
And I suppose yes, there is the Book of the Maccabees, but it's not seen as having religious significance. We look to it for some historical details, so it's never canonized as one of the books of the Bible, and so Hanukkah is one of those holidays that are book-less, text-less, in a way. So how do we approach it?
I want to suggest to you that there may actually be a text that sheds a surprising kind of light upon Hanukkah. It's sort of a hidden text, it's not one that we usually associate with Hanukkah, and it's there, right in front of our eyes, and I want to get to that with you. But first, a couple other questions to set the stage here.
In one of the Hanukkah videos that we released last year, I talked about the miracle of the lights and the miracle of the war, and suggested that there was a kind of commonality between them, and the commonality had to do with being able to see a transcendent God in our own mundane world.
The challenge is this, if it is really true, that of the two miracles of Hanukkah, they sort of boil down to the same thing, then how come the way in which we commemorate Hanukkah is solely through the miracle of the lights? We kind of ignore the war.
If I was on the ritual committee that is coming up with ways that we should celebrate Hanukkah, I would say look, they both have more or less the same theological meaning. Which miracle was more significant?
Why Is Lighting the Menorah on Hanukkah So Important?
Well, the war was hugely significant; it changed the face of Jewish history. Lights weren't that significant. They didn't have enough pure oil. They only had enough for one night, and it was going to take them eight days to produce more. So they lit the menorah, and miraculously the light continued to burn until they were able to produce more pure oil.
Okay, and if the light hadn’t continue to burn? Okay. So they would have been out of oil, and they would have lit it again eight days later. They did the best they could, they got rid of the swine on the altar, they purified the Temple; what more do you want from them? It would have just been a footnote in Jewish history if the menorah had gone dark for a few more days.
So, if we are going to celebrate one miracle, wasn't the war the more significant miracle?
If you were on the ritual committee to make up the observance of Hanukkah, way back then, wouldn't you say, "Well, let's create these papier-mâché Greek elephants. As we beat the piñata, we should have these little scraps of papers that come flying out of the broken elephant that say “God” on them or “God is here!” It was God that made it all happen, and we should understand that there was this great transcendent miracle, that the war was won because of God, that was the miracle that really matters; let's celebrate that miracle!
Why the oil? Why the light? Why do we celebrate the unnecessary miracle?
The Significance of Hanukkah's Events in Jewish History
And finally, here is one last question to consider. What is the great historical event that we are celebrating here in Hanukkah? We all know the answer to that; we are celebrating the great victory of the Maccabees over the terrible, evil forces of Antiochus.
That's the kind of narrative that we grow up with as kids. It's all very shiny and wonderful, almost as shiny and wonderful as the presents that we unwrap and the lights that glow in our homes. But the actual history is not so wonderful and shin.
First of all, while it was convenient to point to Antiochus as the villain, in reality, the villain wasn't only him, but members of our own countrymen, who were Hellenists, who had assimilated Greek ideals, bought the Greek line on life, hook, line, and sinker; they were as much a part of the problem as Antiochus was. The victory was as much against them as against anyone else.
Moreover, even the victory against Antiochus, while it was a brief, bright, shining spot in Jewish history, became much more clouded in the ensuing generations for the descendants of the Maccabees.
First of all, after that victory, it's not like the Jews enjoyed complete and total independence from those around them. Even in the very next generation of the Hasmonean dynasty, the rulers from the Chashmonaic family have to wheel and deal with Antiochus's sons, submit to taxation from them, have to make bargains with the Roman Empire, bargains that eventually collapsed after time, with Rome, after time, coming in and making Judah a client state.
Eventually, they installed Herod, who made it his business to completely wipe out all remnants of the Hasmonean dynasty, tries to destroy all male heirs to the throne; so it's not so glorious, what happens next.
And the moral characters from these rulers, from the Hasmonean dynasty, Mattathias, Yochanan – the leaders of the revolt against Antiochus – they were noble and wonderful men. But later generations, even the very next generation, Shimon, one of the brothers of Judah the Maccabee, takes over. Shimon gets murdered by his son-in-law; his kids are assassinated too.
Luckily, one of his sons, Yochanan Hyrcanus, he wasn't at the banquet where the murders took place, and he takes over leadership; he became both the high priest, the kohen gadol, and the political leader of the people.
But the Perushim, the Pharisees, weren't so crazy about him having both of these offices. So when he died, he decided to split them between his wife, who would take over political leadership, and his son, Aristobulus, who would take over the high priesthood.
Except Aristobulus didn't like that idea. So he threw his mother into prison where she starved to death, then he imprisoned three of his rival brothers, and he takes over political leadership too. These are very dark times.
Yes, it's true, Judea wins its independence, nominally, with the victory of the Maccabees. Yes, it's true, the Temple is purified. This is a temporary bright spot in the history of the Jewish people, but for a very short flicker of time.
What Did the Menorah Represent?
And I think this may come back to the question of celebrating the war and celebrating the oil. You know, the legacy of the war, as history would determine it, was very mixed; how much independence do we really get? What were the long term effects?
But the miracle of the oil, something happened there that the Sages who instituted Hanukkah wanted us to focus on. That little unnecessary miracle, maybe its seeming triviality is what the Sages wanted us to commemorate so joyously.
I want to take another closer look at this with you, and to do that, I want to take a look at that hidden text that I talked to you about.
Understanding the Reasons for Celebrating Hanukkah
If Hanukkah had been a Biblical holiday, where would you expect to find it in the list of holidays? I want to read through that list of holidays with you, but as we do, I want you to keep in mind that artistic concept that we sometimes call Negative Space.
I personally had no idea what negative space was until we put together a book cover for the Hebrew translation of the book I did on Genesis, and one of our designers in the office said "What a beautiful use of negative space.”
Negative space is when you draw without drawing, when what you draw creates the border for blank space, and the blank space is your real picture. The peel created the outline of the snake, so in some way the snake is there, but he is also not there; he is just made of nothingness.
I want to suggest to you that if you read the parsha of the festivals, it is what the Torah talks about, the festival themselves, but the outline created defines a kind of negative space; a space occupied by Hanukkah, of all things.
The Hebrew word moed, often translated as "festival," doesn't really mean festival. It means "appointment;" a meeting time with God. These are meetings called by God, and the people are supposed to show up, supposed to come to the Temple and celebrate, and encounter as a nation, their Maker.
That's not what they used to look like. Three times per year, people in Israel left their homes and made the long journey to Jerusalem, to the Temple, in order to encounter God. The holiday was spent not just getting together with family, but getting together with the entire nation of Israel, to get together with God.
The Sages talk about miracles that would take place in the Temple; God's presence was pretty tangible. It is like, God was showing up three times per year, and he invited us to meet Him.
Now a moed typically is associated with some sort of agrarian event, but it's also associated with some sort of historical event. Typically, the historical events are some sort of miraculous occurrence. God took us out of Egypt, and we have the holiday of Passover; signs and wonders. We have the holiday of Shavuot, traditionally associated with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Again, the big fire and light show around the mountain; signs and wonders. We've got Sukkot, commemorating how God took care of millions of people for 40 years in the desert. It's quite a logistics nightmare; again, signs and wonders. And there are agrarian events associated with each of these holidays too. Pesach – "the spring time", Shavuot – "harvest time", Sukkot – "the time of gathering in the wheat."
And now note one other interesting aspect of all of these moadim: they all happen really, within a six months framework, starting from the middle of the spring to the middle of the fall. It's the light times of the year, the times of the year, where, at least in the northern hemisphere, where Israel, where the Beit Hamikdash was, the daytimes are long and the night times are short.
There is no winter moadim, or is there? There is a winter holiday; its possibility, its potential seems implied by the outline of the Biblical moadim, by the negative space.
It comes at a time of the year when night times are longer than day times. It's a holiday that celebrates no agrarian event, because it's in the winter, when nature is entirely still. And it's not a holiday mandated by God as a meeting time; it's a holiday started by people, who are reaching out to God. And the question is, would God reach back?
Okay, but now I hear you saying, "Well, it's kind of interesting, it may be a little bit suggestive, but is there really kind of a 'negative space' phenomenon here, or maybe is it just our overactive imagination?" Well, could be.
The Biblical History Behind Lighting the Menorah?
But now, let's play a little game. Let's pretend, "What if Hanukkah was a Biblically mandated event, where would you expect to find it in these list of moadim?"
Well, they proceed chronologically right? Starting from the spring, first you've got Pesach, first thing that appears here in Leviticus; and then Shavuot, 49 days later; and then of course you have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; your next calendar event is going to be Sukkot, and the next holiday down the pike in the Jewish calendar after Sukkot is Hanukkah.
Sukkot is the last holiday, so the list is over, right? But what's the next thing you find after Sukkot?
Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor, "And God spoke to Moses saying,” tzav et-benei Yisrael veyikchu eleicha shemen zayit zach, "command the children of Israel and tell them to take pure olive oil," katit lama'or, "for lights," leha'alot ner tamid, "to make sure that there is a candle, a light, that burns every night, one night after another night." Al hamenorah hatehorah ya'aroch et-hanerot, "On the pure menorah, you shall set up these lights," lifnei Hashem tamid, "before God, always."
Kind of spooky, isn't it? I mean, it really seems reminiscent, really like a foreshadow, of Hanukkah. In the peshat, in the simple meaning of the text, it's not actually talking about Hanukkah here.
Yes, Hanukkah is all about lighting the lights of the menorah, it's all about using the pure olive oil, all of those elements are true, but what we are talking about here is the biblical command to light the menorah every night, that the candles should burn throughout the night, every night in the Temple.
But it's quite suggestive wouldn't you say, of the holiday that's all about the lighting of lights; the pure olive oil, the light of the menorah. Right when the parsha of holidays is over, it's not so over. There, sneaking into your field of vision, is the menorah and the light. It seems as if the Torah is hinting about something in the future.
From Darkness to Light
That, in fact, is how many commentators understand this. The Ba’al HaTurim sees in this parsha a kind of remez, a hint, to a holiday to come. He sees it in the word for light: the word ner for candle, or oil lamp, appears twice in this little parsha, about the menorah.
The first time it appears, leha'a lot ner tamid, it's singular. The second time it appears, ya'aroch et-hanerot, it's plural. Lights going from singular to plural – what does that remind you of? We start with one, but then we go to many. By the end of Hanukkah, we have eight lights. Ner becomes nerot.
I would like to suggest to you here that it's not just that Hanukkah comes during the winter in the yearly cycle, during the time that night outweighs daylight. It's not just about the 24-hour cycles; it's about much larger cycles of history. There is light and there is darkness there too, times when daylight outweighs light, and times when night outweighs day.
The events of the moadim, the miracles of the moadim, happened in a time when light did outweigh darkness, at least in terms of God's presence in the world. These were times when miracles happened. They were times when prophets walked the earth, they were times for direct encounter between God and the entire people, at a central place – the great Temple in Jerusalem.
These were times when, in one way or another, humanity was focused on spirituality. Their focus indeed was spirituality more than it was the development of the mundane world; it was before the scientific revolution, before the Renaissance.
The great enemy of the Torah in those days was not atheism, but avodah zarah. All cultures worshipped, the only question is, "What did you worship?" Do you have a corrupt approach to spirituality or an honest one? But one way or another, you have an approach to spirituality. You didn't ignore the world of the spirit in those days, it was right there in front of you.
But that world gradually transformed into a world more focused on the human experience, then on humankind’s relationship with the Transcendent. It happened around the closing of the biblical era; an era where prophecy came to a close, where open miracles ceased to exist, a time when man seemed to be on their own.
You had the rise of Greek culture, of humanism, and the focus on the human experience; the beginning of science as we know it, the use of observation to learn about the world, to categorize it, to explore it; the quest to find the best mode of governance for mankind, Plato's Republic; the focus on objectively telling the story of humanity, Herodotus. Later on, the Renaissance would take this focus on the human being and his immediate surroundings still further; and the scientific revolution would take it further still.
While all the new era ushers in more advances in mankind's ability to control his own environment, and to better dominate his world, it was also a time in which mankind came to feel more alone. It was a time that, in Jewish tradition, was known as a time of hester panim, when God hides his face, so to speak. It's less obviously present in the world.
You can find a great analysis of all of this, by the way, in Jeremy Kagan’s book, "The Jewish Self." Some of the language I’ve taken here borrows from that book.
The Torah speaks of moadim, encounters, meetings between man and God. When you go out to meet people, you meet them in the day; nighttime is a time when you feel all alone, even when you are in the presence of others, because darkness makes you feel like you are not sure if they are there.
Lighting Candles in Times of Darkness
So right after our parsha of moadim, and the negative space right out of the border of the parsha of moadim, we seem to hear about a phantom moed – a time for lighting candles in darkness.
In the winter months of the year, when there is no moed, in winter times of history when darkness abounds and God is not so easily seen, a moed where God does not command us to encounter him like all the others, but where we seek to encounter him, and we are not sure if it works. That in a nutshell is what Hanukkah is all about.
There is no book for Hanukkah! The books that were canonized in the Torah, we have confidence that these were scared books, we didn't have confidence that the book of the Maccabees was a sacred book; people put it together, God's influence was just questionable at best. And it wasn't just God's influence on books we couldn't figure out, we couldn't figure out God's influence on the great events of history.
Here it was, the beginning of the dark times, deep into the second Temple era; there hadn't been prophets for centuries, there hadn't been miracles for centuries. It was a confusing time, a dark time, a time when we were oppressed: from without by Antiochus, and within the Hellenizing elements that sought to destroy Judaism from within.
At that time, a band of people came together, the Maccabees, to oppose all of this; and strangely, they began to win. They beat armies many times their size, but in the wake of it all, no one could be sure, "Was this God? Or maybe it was just us?"
It was a dark time in history, and in the dark, you are never sure whether you are alone, even when someone is right there next to you.
The war was won, but even as the Maccabees swept in to purify the Temple, the nagging uncertainty persisted; "Did we do this all by ourselves, or was God a partner in all of this?" Maybe we won the war, but maybe we are still all alone. We weren't invited by God to go to the Temple to meet with him, as it were.
But then, there came a miracle, an unnecessary miracle. We lit the menorah with just a bit of oil, but God made sure the light didn't go out; it burned and it burned and it burned.
The Spiritual Meaning Behind Lighting the Menorah
The miracle itself was trivial, but the message itself wasn't trivial at all.
At the end of it all, after the war, and after the purification of the Temple, when it was all done and it became time to bring the Temple in operation again, it became time to light the menorah, something happened to show us that it wasn't just us lighting the menorah alone; God was meeting us, He was our partner.
It was subtle, you could miss it if you weren't looking, but it was God's way of winking at us, as if to say, "You thought you were all alone in the dark? Come on. I was right here with you the whole time."
Why We Commemorate Hanukkah by Lighting Candles
And so we too light the lights every year to commemorate this, it’s much more fitting than papier-mâché elephants. That would be too overt.
The lights are more subtle. This is our way of winking back, "We know you were here. Thanks for being a part of it."
Are you in the darkness? Yes, you are in the time of history that is very dark. Will there be more darkness? Yes. But I can promise you that even in the dark, you are not alone.
To this point, I think we've begun to glimpse something of the power of this unnecessary miracle of the lights, but I think there's a great deal of emotional resonance that lies just beneath the surface here. And I want to begin to explore a little bit of that with you.
The Deeper Significance of the Menorah Story
So years ago every once and a while, I'd get my kids together with some of their friends and convene an evening of what I called "Hollywood and the Rabbis." I would take a theme that appeared in a film and try to analyze that theme from the perspective of Jewish texts.
What does that theme looked like in a Jewish context?
- Do we agree?
- Do we disagree?
- Did we have it first?
So I would like to try something like that with you here with you today, and I hope that can help us make some of the points that I have been talking about a little bit more real to us; after all, Hanukkah happened a very long time ago to people that we don't know. It's an era that seems very, very remote.
But the everlasting power of Hanukkah is very real. And I want to show you that the power of the Hanukkah moment is so tangible that it actually kind of forms the crux, the emotional crux, of films after films, after films. But those films were fiction. But, Hanukkah wasn't fiction – for us, it was real, it is real.
We had the privilege of living through a kind of closeness that the creators of cinematic fiction only hope to help us dream of. It's no dream for us; it's real.
I am going to show you a clip from a film, and as you watch it, think about the story we've been telling about Hanukkah, think about the significance of our lighting those lights. Think about when Hanukkah happened in history. Think about it from the standpoint of relationships.
Understanding What the Menorah Symbolized
There had been a falling out between you and God, years before the destruction of the first Temple, leading to an era when there was no prophecy, there were no miracles, and now you just didn't know where God was in your life.
And then, there is this event that happened, this really important event, that war; but where was God in that war? There is this gnawing sense of unfinished business I just don't know. And now watch this clip, it’s a clip from the film 'The Sixth Sense.'
There is this single mother who loves her little boy very deeply. But the little boy is troubled; he has this secret that he is just not telling his mother. And she sends him to therapy for a very long time, and gradually you would come to understand the boy's secret. It turns out he has this sense, that allows him to sense the presence of people who have already died.
At first, the boy is very scared by this. But then, as he begins to figure out what's happening, he realizes that these people who have passed on, they are seeking to grapple, in some kind of way, with the unfinished business they left in the world; and they feel that somehow, the boy might be able to help them.
And then there is this moment towards the end of the film, the boy and his mother are in a car, and they are stuck in standstill traffic, and the boy, Cole, turns to his mother and says, "I am ready to communicate with you now. I’m ready to tell you my secrets. You know the accident up there? Someone got hurt. A lady. She died. She’s standing next to my window. I see ghosts. They want me to do things for them. They’re the ones that used to hurt me. You think I’m a freak? Grandma says hi. She says she’s sorry for taking the bumblebee pendant, she just likes it a lot. Grandma comes to visit me sometimes. She wanted me to tell you, she saw you dance. She said, when you were little, you and her had a fight right before your dance recital. You thought she didn’t come to see you dance. She did. She hid in the back so you wouldn’t see. She said you were like an angel. She said, you came to the place where they buried her, asked her a question, she said the answer is, every day. What did you ask?”
And then Cole’s mom cries and responds, “Do I make her proud?”"
So moving back to Hanukkah, in a way, that was our question to our beloved too, "I didn't see you at the dance recital. Were you there? Do I make you proud?"
We too have gotten in a fight with God. God has withdrawn, become more hidden in our lives, we are no longer in that age of prophecy and miracle. In that falling out between us and God, it was unclear how much God was involved in our lives. Was He there in the great turning points? Or were we all alone?
And then, there was this little moment of light; it wasn't a dance recital, it was a war. We won! And in seeking to make sense of that triumph, we asked ourselves that nagging question, "Was our Creator there?" And that question continues to haunt us.
It was like the greatest gift our Creator could give us was that answer, a little bit of light that says, "Of course I was there. I was hiding in the back row. Do you think I would have missed this?"
Let me take you into one more clip with an entirely different premise, but the emotional climax is the same. In this case, the drama begins when you, the viewer, are introduced to an anchorman on a news show. He is a fellow that has carefully sought to distance himself from any sort of political affiliation, and then tends to take safe positions, never really gets involved in much controversy.
And then there is this moment that he is on this talk show, in front of an audience of students at a major university. And, on one side of him, is a respected right-wing political commentator, and on the other side, a respected left-wing political commentator. And then a question was thrown to him, a simple innocent question, that although he doesn't know it, it was about to become a turning point in his life.
“My name is Jenny, I’m a sophomore, and this is for all three of you. Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”
Left-wing pundit: Diversity and opportunity.
Right-wing pundit: Freedom and freedom, and let’s keep it that way.
So at first, he starts to evade her question. “The New York Jets.” Then, when pushed, “Well, Louis and Sharon said it. Diversity and opportunity, and freedom and freedom.” His eye seems to catch someone in the crowd, someone he thinks he recognizes, but now he looks again and he is not sure who she really is. Is it her, or isn't it her? Maybe it's just his imagination.
“Well, our Constitution is a masterpiece, James Madison was a genius, the Declaration of Independence is, for me, the single greatest piece of American writing.”
And when the moderator pushes again, saying, “One’s a set of laws, and the other’s a declaration of war; I want a human moment from you. What about the people...”
“It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor, that’s my answer. Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn't cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don't like liberals? Because they lose.
And [to the conservative panelist] with a straight face, "You're going to tell students that America's so star-spangled awesome that we're the only ones in the world who have freedom?”
So then our friend, the anchor, continues his diatribe. But it’s not like he hates America, or thinks it’s awful. He just yearns for an earlier time, has a vision that America could be so much better. “We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons.”
So here, he waxes poetic, he talks about the great potential that America could be, and what it once was, and how to recover that. And he closes with these words: “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one – America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
This has become a huge turning point in his life. He gets all sorts of flock for this terrible diatribe that he made, but it's also shaken up him. It has given him an idea, that he really ought to devote himself, to try to be the kind of newsman that there once was in the world, who was not afraid to take a stand, who helped shape the country for the better.
And then, this anchor man gets an executive producer and she provokes him, argues with him, and insists that he can do better with his new show: “A nightly newscast that informs the debate worthy of a great nation! Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important!”
And it becomes clear that they have some kind of past together, they were once in love, they were once married, you don't know exactly what, but it seems they had some terrible falling out in the past. And they do their first newscast together – it happens to be the day the Deepwater Horizon well explodes – and with very little time, they pulled together an outstanding newscast. And then it's over.
And she catches up with him, just as he is about to go into an elevator, he talks about that moment, months before, standing in front of that college audience: “I thought I saw you in the audience, that’s how I got flustered. I thought I saw you, but it turned out to be someone else.”
The revelation never takes place. It's the moment that passes without him understanding. Here was this life-changing moment, the moment he actually felt inspired to take a stand, and he felt that he had something to do with her.
He thought he saw her there holding that sign, but he never knew if she was really there. So he always has to wonder, maybe it was just a figment of his imagination. Maybe he really was all alone.
Well, for us, in our national drama with God, at the end of it all, we knew. We knew because God wanted us to know, God allowed us to know; we got that gift of understanding.
The Significance of Lighting Hanukkah Candles
It came in the form of light, and to commemorate that moments, those great gift, we shine those lights back; we return the wink, with the wink of our own.
These films are the creation of Hollywood, but Hanukkah celebrates something real. Its meaning is not just theological, that God can become involved in the world, even in which he seems to be hidden. The meaning of the miracle lies, most of all, in the gift of its love, in the fact that God loved us enough to let us know that he was there, and that we, in turn, were able to understand that message, appreciate it and say, "Thank you."
Before I let you go though, and before we close the door on this idea, I want to entertain a possible challenge to it, the kind of “skeptics challenge,” a challenge that says that at the end of the day, this is a kind of Pollyannaish view of 'sugar and spice and everything nice,' but in some kind of way, it doesn't reflect the fullness of our reality, which is not always quite so pretty.
Why the Menorah Light Was Important
What about all the other spots? What about the other turning points which are not triumphant but were actually tragic turning points, moments when everything had changed for the worst? What does Hanukkah have to say about that?
Sure, God was there is that moment of light; great for God to take credit for this wonderful victory over the Greeks. But what about loss, defeat, tragedy? Was God there too? What does Hanukkah, that unnecessary miracle of the lights, what does Hanukkah has to say about that?
So in response to that question, let's explore together two little bits of classic Jewish text. The first is a little piece from the story of Joseph. It's interesting that the Torah portion that we read at Hanukkah-time is the story of Joseph. I think hidden in this story is a little piece of Hanukkah too.
The idea I am about to tell you was shared with by a psychologist in Chicago by the name of Jerry Lob. I had the good fortune of staying over at his house one weekend, and he shared with me a thought from Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz that goes like this.
Chapter 37 of the Book of Genesis tells us the very difficult and painful story of the sale of Joseph. Right at the climactic moment, the Torah tells us that the Ishmaelite traders who picked up Joseph, hauled him out of the pit, and took him down to Egypt, bringing him into a life of servitude, were carrying a certain kind of cargo.
They were carrying nechot utzri valot, "various different kinds of incense." Why do I need to know that fact? Who cares what the cargo of the Ishmaelite traders was?
So, in response, Rashi quotes a midrash that suggests that the incense was there so that Joseph, as he was taken down to Egypt, should have some nice smells to accompany him.
The itinerant traders of the time, the midrash says, would often take really foul-smelling stuff, but this time, it was beautiful incense that they were taking. Joseph should have a nice trip down to Egypt, something good to smell along the way. That's what Rashi says.
So Jerry relates to me Rabbi Shmuelevitz's question: "Are you for real? Joseph cares about the incense? It's the worst day of his life, every last thing is going wrong. The incense is a very small consolation prize, wouldn't you say? It's a trivial consolation prize; an unnecessary one. And," Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz says, "that's actually the entire point of the midrash. It's conveying to you something of the essence of an unnecessary miracle."
This is the day that everything changes for Joseph. If good fortune had seemed to smile on Joseph for the first 17 years of his life, here he was, second in charge to his father, that all completely gets destroyed in an instant, when he is stripped of his clothes, thrown into a pit, and then sold off as a slave to Egypt.
You can imagine what it was like to scream out as your clothes were stripped of you, to cry out for your father who is not there, for help from your brothers who won't give it, and then you turn to God; but wherever he turns, every single door is closed. The answer is just "no, no, no." That's the context in which you have to understand the incense.
Rabbi Shmuelevitz says, "It was God's way of saying, right here, in that darkest of time, I am still here with you. I cannot answer your prayers the way you want them to be answered right now. Here is what I can give you, a little bit of incense, a fragrant smell."
It says, if nothing else, you are not alone. If I can't offer you the protection that you want now, at least I could offer you my presence. Despite appearances, I am here with you now." And that is the enduring meaning of that incense.
When Jerry finished telling me this, he mentioned that in his practice, his therapy practice, when people come to him during very, very dark times in their own lives, he sometimes tell them about this comment of Rashi, this interpretation, and he asks them this question, "Yes, every door is closed, but do you see any incense?"
And often they answer, "Yes," they do. And there is some comfort to be found there. The pain is just as painful, the tragedy is just as tragic, but if I am not alone, then it's the miracle of the light all over again.
Remembering What Hanukkah Represents in Our Dark Times
And now, let me take you into one last piece of text. There is a blessing at the end of the end of Grace After Meals, it's called Hatov Vehametiv, "The God who is good and who does good." This blessing, the Torah records, was instituted by the Rabbis after the burial of Harugei Betar, "those who were killed at the fortress of Betar."
In this blessing of Hatov Vehametiv is another one of these little unnecessary miracles in times of tragedy, a miracle that's kind of like Joseph's incense, but it occurs for a whole nation.
The fortress of Betar was the last great stand of the Bar Kokhba revolt. The rebellion of Bar Kokhba against Rome took place about 60 years after the destruction of the second Temple. And Bar Kokhba initially won some successes in battle, he got this triumphant name Bar Kokhba, 'Son of the Star.'
For about two years, he actually managed to establish kind of a mini-state, a nascent independent Jewish state in the shadow of Rome, but it was brutally crushed.
Now when we think of Jewish tragedy in those days, we often think of the destruction of the second Temple that happened about 60 years later at the hands of Titus. But the truth is, as devastating as the loss of the second Temple was, the crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt was probably even more significant. Over 500,000 people were killed; many thousands more were sold as slaves. If you take into account the comparative size of the Jewish population at the time, this was a Holocaust-level event.
Adrian, the Roman Emperor at the time, he was incensed by it. He displaced six full Roman legions, along with auxiliary troops to crush it, until they finally won the day. Adrian felt that the revolt had the support of the Rabbinic authorities, and because of this, he waged a ruthless law not just against the military leaders, but against any vestige of Judaism within Judea.
In the aftermath of the revolt, Jews were entirely banned from entering Jerusalem, the city was renamed Aelia Capitolina, a Temple to Jupiter was erected on the ruins of the second Temple. Even the name Palestine itself, dates back to the new name the Romans gave Judea; a name designed to erase all remnants of Jewish presence from the land.
The last stand of the Bar Kokhba revolt took place at a fortress outside of Jerusalem called Betar. Upon its capture, the Romans took no prisoners, they massacred everyone. The Roman fury was so great that when it was all over, they didn't even initially allowed any Jews into Betar to bury the dead. And so Betar remained the ghost town, with the corpses of his defenders laying there outside in the sun.
Finally, the Romans relented and allowed compatriots of the fallen to come into Betar and to bury the victims of the massacre. When they arrived, they found something astonishing; despite the passage of time, none of the bodies had decomposed. The bodies were able to be buried with dignity.
Now put yourself in the shoes, for a moment, of a member of the burial delegation who entered Betar at that moment. This will stand to be the darkest moment of Jewish history for the next thousand years. Everything is gone, all the hopes of the Bar Kokhba revolt. Hundreds of thousands are dead. The revitalization of the Jewish state, independence, freedom; it's all gone. Israel is virtually destroyed as a center for Jewish life. All the prayers for a Jewish nation had gone to naught. The answer from above is "no."
But there was one little miracle, an unnecessary miracle. What good did it really do? But the Sages took note of that miracle and the response was to make this blessing Hatov Vehametiv – "the one who is good and who bestows good"; they saw in this a little spark of goodness.
It's not that they didn't see the darkness, the pain, the tragedy, the suffering; they saw of that, but they still spoke of good. Hu hetiv, in the past, He did good.
Grace After Meals speaks of the glorious time when God gave them a land that would provide for them, and that was good. And it looks forward to a future, hu yetiv, "that He will do good for us." A future when uvenei Yerushalayim, "Jerusalem will be rebuilt," when that goodness will be revitalized once again.
But the Rabbis who made this blessing were confronted with a problem, the present: is there good now, in the blackest of times? They saw in that miracle that the dead could be buried in dignity; a little bit of Joseph's incense, a little bit of Hanukkah's lights. And they say, "Yes, there is good in the present too."
Celebrating Hanukkah as the Festival of God's Light
Had good been entirely absent in the present, we could wonder whether our link with the goodness of the past has been severed, and there would be no hope for goodness in the future.
But that's not the case. There is goodness in the present, there is this little unnecessary miracle. God did not save us this time, but He was there with us, and that itself is a kind of goodness too.
That's the legacy of these unnecessary miracles – at Betar, with Joseph's incense, with Hanukkah's light; it's true in tragedy, and it's true in triumph.
There is a kind of miracle whose main purpose is simply to drive away the dark, even for an instant, to give you the comfort of accompaniment in your darkest hour. A comfort that means hope for a better future is not absurd, but is to be firmly grasped your God has not, has never, abandoned you.