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December 25, 2011 6:14 pm

A Titanic Victory and a Small Cruse of Oil

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus.

David Brooks, in an engaging but superficial article on Hanukah in the New York Times (The Hanukah Story, NY Times, December 10, 2009), sheds light on the brighter side of the Greeks who emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience and brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. He also illuminates the darker side of the Maccabees, who liberated the Jews from barbaric Syrian-Greek oppression, but whose own regime became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

While admiring the Greek contributions to civilization — its politics, philosophy, art and architecture – it is easy to forget what Greek society was really like. Mr. Brooks fails to discuss the barbaric daily practices in the Hellenist culture — infanticide, pedophilia, pederasty, the “Spartan Lifestyle,” and the glorification of torture in many instances. None other than Aristotle himself, the teacher of Alexander the Great, argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed [i.e. thrown on the trash heap or left out in the woods to die]. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.”

But let us focus here on the actual Hanukah narrative. A brief historical introduction is important. The festival of Hanukah commemorates an extraordinary victory — of the Maccabees, a relatively small and dedicated force of fighters, against one of the great imperial powers of classical antiquity, the Seleucid branch of the Alexandrian empire.

This story takes us back 2100 years ago, to the year 164 BCE, some 150 years before the birth of Christianity and two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Israel was then under the rule of the empire of Alexander the Great. A Syrian ruler Antiochus the 5th ascended the throne and he was determined to impose his values on the Jewish people. He forbade the practice of Judaism, set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple, and systematically desecrated Jerusalem’s holy sites. Jews who were caught practicing Judaism were tortured to death. This was tyranny on a grand scale. Sadly, he was helped in this endeavor by two Jewish high priests, Jason and Menelaus, who assisted him in banning the Jewish lifestyle and turning the Temple into an interdenominational house of worship on Greek lines.

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To put it into historical perspective, had Antiochus succeeded, Judaism would have died. Its daughter religions — Christianity and Islam – would have, of course, never come to be.

A small group of Jews, led by the elderly priest Matisyahu and his sons, rose in revolt. They fought a brilliant campaign, and within three years they had recaptured Jerusalem, removed sacrilegious objects from the Temple, and restored Jewish autonomy. It was, as we say in the Hannukah prayers, a victory for ‘the weak against the strong, and the few against the many.’ Religious liberty was established and the Temple was rededicated. Hanukah means “rededication.”

This was a remarkable event and an extraordinary triumph. We, the Jewish people, are here today only because of the courage and vision of this small group of determined Jews who would not allow their God and their Torah to be reduced to the dustbins of history by the Syrian-Greek tyrant.

Yet astonishingly, the Talmud, the classical text of Jewish law and literature, gives us a very different perspective on the Hannukah festival.

“What is Hannukah?” asks the Talmud (Talmud, Shabbat 21b.) The answer given is this:

“When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest—enough to light the menorah (candelabra) for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for God.”

So, according to the Talmud, the festival of Hannukah is less about the military victory of a small band of Jews against one of the mightiest armies on earth, and more about the miracle of the oil. The Talmud makes only a passing reference to the military victory (“when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious”), and focuses exclusively on the story with the oil, as if this were the only significant event commemorated by the festival of Hannukah.

This is strange. The miracle of the oil, it would seem, was of minor significance relative to the military victory. Besides the fact that this was a miracle that occurred behind the closed doors of the Temple with only a few priests to behold, it was an event concerning a religious symbol without any consequences on life, death and liberty. If the Jews would have been defeated by the Greeks, there would be no Jews today; if the oil would have not burnt for eight days, so what? The menorah would have not been kindled. Would the latkes taste any worse?

Let us grease the question with a contemporary touch.

Imagine that following the extraordinary Israeli victory of the 1967 six-day war, during which six Arab armies were determined to exterminate Israel and its three million Jews, a candle located in a Jerusalem synagogue would have burned for six days. Sure, it would have added a nice sentimental touch to the euphoria of Israel’s salvation, but would have this, rather than the deliverance of millions of innocent human beings from a second holocaust, been the cause of celebration? Would this detail even make it to the front page of the media?

Similarly, the burning of the Temple candelabra for eight days was, no doubt, a heart-warming follow up to a great victory. It was a demonstrative sign that G-d cherished the sacrifice of His children and had rewarded them with an astounding miracle. Yet it is clear that this was merely the icing on the cake, a coup-de-grace to a historical momentous victory on the battlefield. Yet the Talmud turns this minor detail into the decisive motif for the Hannukah celebration?

What is more, the miracle with the oil is the only element of the Hannukah events that we commemorate to this very day. We have no custom or ritual commemorating a miraculous triumph. What we do have is the kindling of a menorah for eight days, commemorating the fact that the oil in the Temple menorah lasted for eight days. How are we to understand this?

The answer allows us to appreciate the essential ingredient that has defined 4,000 years of Jewish history. The military victory was extraordinary; yet it didn’t last. The dynasty of the Hasmonean family became entrenched in civil war and corruption. 210 years after Hannukah, in 68 CE, the Temple was destroyed, this time by the Romans. Jerusalem was plundered, Israel was decimated and the Jewish people exiled. It was the beginning of a period of Jewish powerlessness, dispersion and persecution which had lasted almost two millennia.

Unfortunately, the political and military victory of Hannukah did not last. What lasted was the spiritual miracle — the faith which, like the oil, was inextinguishable.

Strength that is founded on military power alone is temporary. It may endure for long periods of time, but ultimately, its might will wane and it will be defeated by another power. Strength that is founded on moral and spiritual light can never be destroyed.

The sages who instituted the Hannukah holiday keenly understood this truth. With their eyes focused on eternity, the rabbis of the Second Temple era grasped that the timeless core of Hannukah was not the victory on the battlefield alone, but rather the fact that this military triumph led to the re-kindling of the sacred light and the moral torch. The military victory was an enormously significant event that we must be deeply grateful for. Yet what makes Hannukah a vibrant and heart-stirring holiday thousands of years later across the globe is the story of a little cruse of oil that would not cease to cast its brightness even in the darkest of nights and among the mightiest of winds.

David Brooks writes that “Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.” He missed the point. The oil miracle constitutes the very foundation of the Hannukah holiday.

For more than two millennia, Jews have been gathering around their Hannukah candelabras, kindling each night an additional candle. As they gazed at the dancing flame atop their menorahs they can hear the candles sharing their story. It consisted of a simple punch line: The flame of Jewish faith, the flame of Torah, the flame of the Mitzvos (commandments), would never be extinguished. The candles were right: Judaism lives.

Imperial Greece and Rome have long since disappeared. Civilizations built on power never last. Those built on care for the powerless never die. What matters in the long run is not simply political, military or economic strength but how we light the flame of the human spirit.

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  • haim

    A beautiful article and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand Hanukka.

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