Hanukkah: The Continual Miracle

Dear Friends:

It is a very rare occasion when I get so many inquiries about something in the popular press that I use my weekly Torah study to offer reaction, but this week I’m going to make a rare exception, for two reasons:

1) It’s about Hanukkah, and it’s still Hanukkah.

2) Hanukkah rarely has two Shabbatot, but this year it does, which means there is a special haftarah read for the occasion, which won’t be read again for many years (till 2026, if hebcal.com is to be believed.)

With that, let’s first start with the inquiries I’ve been getting, which can be largely paraphrased as “What the heck did you think of what David Brooks wrote about Hanukkah in the New York Times?”

Well, in brief, I thought it was great, but I’d better explain why. Brooks retells the story of Hanukkah by casting it as a paradigmatic tale of the ironies of history, in which we (American Jews) celebrate “good guys” (the Maccabees) who were really fanatics fighting a civil war against their assimilated, Westernized brethren. The Maccabees, seen this way, look an awful lot like the “bad guys” (i.e., religious fanatics) in the Middle East today, whom we wish would just assimilate some Western values and not be so fanatical, as it were.

So if Brooks makes a none-too-subtle comparison between the Maccabees and contemporary religious extremists, why would I think his column is great, and even more importantly, why celebrate Hanukkah at all?

I liked his column because, to me, a fundamental Jewish value is smashing idols, which are not so much hunks of wood and stone but rather dead and immobile and unreflective ways of thinking. I appreciate the efforts of an iconoclast because a bit of idol-smashing keeps us honest, and in truth, the notion that Jews are always on the side of right and good versus the evil oppressors who want to kill us is our own idol of victim status and moral self-satisfaction.

Please note: the Hanukkah story, like any other important story, can be told at different levels of complexity depending on the audience. I have no desire to ruin Hanukkah for young children, who deserve their Hasmonean heroes, but neither do I wish to tell children’s stories to grownups, who can, in fact, handle the truth, and probably prefer it.

Not only that, but understanding the history of Hanukkah actually helps me appreciate the transcendent element even more, and this brings us to the once-a-decade (or so) haftarah for the second Shabbat of Hanukkah, from the book of 1 Kings. It’s the story of how King Shlomo [Solomon] commissioned the first Temple, and hired a guy named Hiram to oversee the work and make the stone and metal vessels and structures. In fact, this haftarah isn’t much more than the report of a successful building project, with the mention of the gold lampstands being the obvious connection to Hanukkah.

What this haftarah does, however, is complete the implicit narrative of Hanukkah that the ancient rabbis tell with the Torah and haftarah readings, which details the dedication of the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary] under Moshe, the building of the First Temple by Shlomo, and the building of the Second Temple by the generation of Zechariah (as we discussed last week.) The Maccabees rededicated the Second Temple, which was destroyed a few generations later by the Romans, which started the next major era of Jewish history.

By linking the Mishkan, the First Temple, and two phases of Second Temple history, the rabbis tell a larger story of Hanukkah, the story of how in every generation Jews found a way to dedicate themselves to religious ideals in the face of difficult historical challenges. That story doesn’t end with the Romans destroying Second Temple; rather, it continues in the observance of Hanukkah itself, which is in its very practice a continuation of the story of Jewish dedication. To me, that larger story- of Jews in every generation somehow finding a way to make the light shine- is only deepened by knowing the complexities and ironies and problems of Jewish history. Somehow, despite our flawed heroes, in every generation we’ve built something holy. Somehow, with our faults and divisions and conflicts, we’ve lived as a unique people despite all odds. Somehow, in the face of tremendous social and political barriers, with no lack of miscalculation on the part of our leaders, we’ve managed to find enough spiritual fuel to keep going past all logical limits, far outliving the empires that once oppressed our ancestors.

That’s also the real story of Hanukkah, and it’s more than enough for me.

Hag Urim Sameach,

RNJL

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