It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. — Eleanor Roosevelt
The beauty and significance of Hanuka is often eclipsed by the famous eight-day miracle of the oil. By focusing on the miracle, we fail to focus on what led up to the miracle and the essence of what the holiday is about. Hanuka, like all of our festivals, is meant to be much more than a commemoration of an event. It is meant to be a time of thought and growth stemming from a pivotal historical experience of our nation.
If we look to the special prayer that we recite on Hanuka the Al haNissim (literally, “About the Miracles”), the omission of the miracle with the oil is glaring. The prayer simply states that the lights of the Menora were kindled in the Bet haMikdash.
We thank you…for the miracles…that you did for our fathers in those days during this time. In the days of Matityahu, High Priest, [of the house of] Hashmonai and his children, when the evil rule of Greece stood against your nation Israel in order to eradicate your Torah from their midst, and to bring them away from Your desired laws…You fought their fight, judged their judgements, and avenged their vengeance…afterwards, Your children…kindled lights in Your holy courtyard.
The focus of the prayer is on the resolve of the Maccabees. They were willing to risk everything in order to fight against the darkness that threatened to extinguish the unique light of our people. With a burning inspiration, they were determined that if the light was to go out, it should occur on the fields of battle so that the soul of the Jewish nation would shine through in the fight for identity. The house of Hashmonai saw with crystal clarity that the shining glory of identity lay not in the victory but in the fight for its value. The Greeks would have thought this insane. To them, if you did not win the battle, there was no glory of which to speak.
Good sportsmanship was thin on the ground in ancient Greece. There were no handshakes for a battle well fought…There were no prizes for second place at the ancient games; the shame of defeat drove some men to madness, others to suicide.
Tony Perrottet, The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games
In the passionate devotion of the Maccabees to their own identity, they engaged their Creator Who fought their battle along with them.
It is at this time of year, when the darkness comes early in the day and lasts for long nights, that we contemplate the historic struggle of the Maccabee militia who risked everything in order to rage against the suppressive force of the Greek nation. It is a time given to us to meditate on how we would fight for our own identity in the face of threat, and how much we are willing to risk to protect the value of what we love and cherish.
The miracle of the light is best understood in the context of our commitment to allow ourselves to shine in the face of adversity — even at the risk of loss. It is particularly beautiful that on the Shabbat of Hanuka we traditionally read the story of Yehuda, the original mastermind behind the sale of his brother Yoseph, who this week, in a turn of penetrating self-discovery, commits to protecting his youngest brother Binyamin from danger.
Yehuda said to Yisrael his father: ‘Send the lad with me…I will act as his pledge, at my hand you may seek him! If I do not bring him back to you and set him in your presence, I will be culpable for sin against you all of the days to come’. (43:8-9)
Identity, relationships, family and faithful friends have always been what mattered most to us because it is there that we see the light of Life shine brightest. Our existence is not validated by the number of wins we have under our belts, but by the strength and commitment we express in order to maintain and cultivate it in the face of difficulty. Ironically, light shines brighter in the darkness.
The powerful light of Hanuka is there for us to access each year. As we look for it in ourselves and in the beautiful things in this world, and recognise its warm sanctity, we find renewal of spirit and strength in knowing that darkness only comes so that our souls may strive to shine brighter.