Chanukah is fast approaching. I know it because my kids are excited and my wife is leaving more frequently for evening runs to Toys R Us and Target. I love Chanukah. If you ask my Rabbinic (Student) opinion, if young Jewish families are set on the “three day per year” synagogue experience—Please make it Simchat Torah, Chanukah and Purim. You and your children will enjoy the services and probably end up returning to sample more days.
My family’s tradition is to light the Chanukah Menorah and sing about a dozen Chanukah songs from traditional to especially silly. I loved it growing up, my kids love it and I hope someday their kids will enjoy the silliness too. So much of the holiday mentions the Hebrew word Nes or Miracle in English. As a matter of fact, the Halachic foundation of Chanuka (and similarly Purim) is Pirsuma Nissa in Aramaic or to publicize the miracle. So what was the miracle?
When we’re children we’re taught that the miracle was the oil—When Judah Maccabee entered the Holy Temple, after defeating the Assyrian Greeks, he and his brothers found enough oil for one night but it actually burned for eight nights. That’s the miracle? We observe Chanukah to celebrate a magic trick?
If that’s true, then why did the Rabbis hold Chanukah (and Purim for that matter) in such high regard? One of my teachers, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, teaches the Halachah of Chanukah and Purim together, as similar post-Biblical holidays created by the Rabbis to mark "miracles". He taught (Talmud Shabbat 88a) that in the Torah the Jews received the Torah “under the mountain” (Exodus 19:17) or with little choice in the matter, but in the story of Purim, the Jewish People finally stand up for Torah and prove itself deserving of Torah. I think that if that's true for Purim where the Jews of Persia stood up and saved themselves from destruction; all the more so it should be true for Chanukah where the Jews of the Land of Israel not only stood up and saved their way of life but also redeemed the land and the Holy Temple.
While it’s a beautiful explanation, I find myself wondering whether the Maccabees considered their victory to be a miracle? After watching his friends and brothers get killed in battle, I think Judah would have probably sensed that they had defeated the Assyrian Greeks with courage, will, strength and intellect. While G-d bestows all of those things, I don’t believe he witnessed the type of Biblical miracles one would expect by all of the Chanukah miracle talk. Same with Purim, just read Megillat Esther and point to the part where G-d defeats Haman or the Persians for the Jews?
My mind immediately races to the modern Jewish “miracle” of the State of Israel. Go to Israel (I mean it, go!) and visit Mount Herzl. On any given day, you will find the military cemetery filled with mothers crying for children buried there—lost while defending the state. G-d help the person who asks that mother if the State of Israel exists because of a “miracle”. Simply put, it exists because there are Jewish teenagers who are willing to fight for the Jewish ideal. They are willing to fight for this new self-determined Jewish reality.
And the truth is that the Rabbinic age between the Maccabees and the State of Israel thought that this Jewish reality was impossible. That is why they called Chanukah a time of miracles. From Pumbadita to Bagdad to Warsaw and Paris, Rabbis experienced wave after wave of anti-Semetic hostility and could not find any answers in their Gemoras. They looked back at the miraculous times of the Maccabees (and Esther) with awe. Imagine, Jews fighting for what they believe in?
Jews do fight. Thank G-d we do. And over the last month, Jews all over the world watched their TV’s and their computer screens to see how Israel would defend herself against the Palestinian hostility in Gaza. Now that there is a cease-fire, everybody has an opinion of what they would do different. I would argue that it is easy for Jews in Los Angeles and New York to play Monday morning quarterback and insist that they know better than Prime Minister Netanyahu or the IDF Generals. It is difficult to show unwavering support for the State of Israel. But that is what is required of us.
This Chanukah there will be children in Sderot and Ashkelon who light their candles thinking that nobody is concerned about them any longer. They’re right. Nobody is glued to their TV’s or reading the Internet stories about Sderot and Ashkelon anymore. But we have to. They can be right about the rest of the world who only tunes in during times of absolute crisis, when rockets are falling, but they can’t be right about the Jewish People.
This Chanukah we must remind our children about the Jewish children who live on the border with Gaza and who are forced to live everyday with courage and strength and the Jewish will to live the Jewish ideal of determining our own destiny.
For a brief moment two thousand years ago, a group of brothers embodied this strength for the Jewish people. And maybe the miracle is that sixty-four years ago, another group of Jews decided to fight once again—To own our tradition once again. May we teach our children here in the Diaspora to honor that tradition in the State of Israel and all those who live that tradition every day. And may we all pray that this brief moment last forever and ever…
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