The Story of Hanukkah

By Rabbi Steven Schwartz

The story of Hanukkah is really two stories, the first a tale of human courage, strength, resistance, resilience, and the human determination to push back the darkness and bring light into the world. And that is the story of the Maccabees, a group of Jews who lived more than a thousand years ago at a time when their homeland, the land of Israel, was controlled by a foreign power. The Maccabees by and large were a rag tag band of rebels and they were standing against what at the time was the greatest power in the world. It was the weak against the strong, the few fighting against the many, but the few were fighting for their own country, for their own families, and for their faith and their freedom, and in the end, it was the immeasurable quality of the human spirit that prevailed, and the Jews regained control of their homeland and their destiny. And during the darkest time of the year, when night falls, we light the menorah as a way of remembering their courage and the gifts that they gave us that we still are blessed with to this day.

The other story of Hanukkah is the story of a miracle. When the Maccabees recaptured the sacred city of Jerusalem they went to the ancient Temple, the center of their religious lives, that had been desecrated. They worked day and night so that the Temple would once again be ready to receive God’s presence, so that it would once again be a place of holiness, and all was made ready. But there was one detail, one small but crucial thing that was missing. The special oil that was required for the lighting of the Temple menorah. They searched and searched, and finally they found one can of the oil, but it was only enough to burn for a single day. Nevertheless they lit the menorah and that single portion of oil burned for 8 days, enough time for them to make more of the oil and bring it to Jerusalem. And so, we light the menorah for 8 nights of Hanukkah, to remember the miracle of the burning menorah in ancient times, and to reflect upon the idea that the brightest light of this world comes from God.

When the two stories of Hanukkah are considered together, we are reminded each year that it is through a partnership between God and humankind that light comes into the world, that darkness can be banished, and that the world can become the kind of place that we want it to be, and that God intends it to be. In the words of the prophet Zachariah, read in the haftara chanted on the first Shabbat of Hanukkah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zachariah 4:6) The lights of the menorah symbolize the sacred moments when our spirits can join with God’s, and when the Divine and Holy light of God’s presence is truly felt in the human heart and soul. חמש םירוא גח – Happy Hanukkah!

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