‘It’s the biggest Jewish festival,’ said the twins I was teaching for their Bar Mitzvah. ‘A big festival,’ said our Ukrainian guests, who’d evidently been reading up about Chanukkah just as we had about how Christmas is celebrated in Ukraine.
The truth is that, no, Chanukkah is fairly minor in the scale of Jewish festivals. But it felt mean to say this, so I replied that it had ‘become big.’ ‘Why?’ the boys, who recognise a half-hearted answer when they hear one, promptly asked. ‘Because of competing with Christmas, and because the Maccabees were important role models,’ I responded.
But there’s a better reason why Chanukkah is, and should be, big today: Chanukkah is about hope and courage and we need large doses of both. Our hearts go out to so many people in so many directions in these difficult times that we need reinforcements in our core.
Chanukkah begins on Sunday night with just one light, except for the servant-candle shammes. These days, everybody follows the School of Hillel whose principle is that ‘in matters of holiness we go up, not down,’ adding one further candle every night, culminating with eight. Eight is the Jewish number of the natural cycle of seven, plus one: plus wonder, faith and hope.
As everyone knows, we light the candles in honour of the pure olive oil the Maccabees found in the ruined precincts of the recaptured temple, which, sufficient for just one day, burnt on the menorah for eight.
But there’s a kashe, a logical problem. Why do we bless God for a miracle on the first night? One day’s oil ought to last for one day! A practical answer could be that the Maccabees saw immediately that something unusual was happening because the oil was burning very, very slowly. But they surely wouldn’t have noticed this phenomenon until at least part way through the day.
Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger (1847 – 1905) offers a better explanation: The miracle began because on that first night because the Maccabees lit the menorah with a whole heart despite having so little oil. In other words, miracles don’t begin in heaven, but here on earth, with what we do.
The Maccabees could have said: What when the oil runs out? Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait for more supplies? But they found the courage, took the risk and the flame they lit burnt not for one, nor even for eight days, but for generations, illumining innumerable dark and difficult years in countless lands and lives. Its light burns yet.
I’ve met many people who do like those Maccabees. They say: I don’t know where this’ll lead, but I’m starting a food bank. I’ll create a warm space. I’ll start Cook for Good, to bring whole communities together.
Perhaps almost everyone who has an idea is like that first contingent, who, looking round the war-ravaged temple precincts, asked themselves: What can we do? Where can we find some light?
They search, not in the rubble but in their hearts, and find their symbolic jar of oil, the fuel for a plan: Maybe this could work. Maybe this will bring some hope. Then they ask themselves: But will it take on? What about resources? Will it all go nowhere? Will the flame go out? But they find the courage; they make something happen.
Then, as so often when something good is initiated, others join in, bringing their own energy and inspiration. Further and further circles are drawn to the light. People ask how to help, what to contribute. They too feed the flame until its light lasts longer and spreads far wider than those who first lit it thought possible.
That’s what hope and courage can achieve.
Is the story of the Maccabees and the oil historically true? Probably not. But does it express and eternal truth? Yes definitely! That’s why Chanukkah is, and should be, truly a big festival.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach, Happy Chanukkah