Hanukkah reminds us that miracles are possible and that seemingly unwinnable wars can be won. But it also holds lessons about partial victories, imperfect heroes, and incomplete belonging.
We tell the story of Hanukkah, in our liturgy and in our songs and in the rituals we use to celebrate the holiday, as the decisive end of a frightening conflict: the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and the Temple is rededicated with Divine imprimatur.
But that is not the full picture of how Hanukkah was experienced in its day: alongside the joy and triumph, there was loss, uncertainty, and ongoing strife. This reality of Hanukkah as the messy middle holds lesson of perseverance for us today as we celebrate the holiday while the State of Israel fights a war which could last a long time, and whose outcome is unknown.
Celebrating painful and partial victories
Leading up to the victory of Hanukkah, Jews fought one another, heroes died, and families mourned, as battles raged on. And as the martyrdom narrative of Hannah and her seven sons describes, civilians made profound sacrifices. It is easy to envision the experiences of people waiting for loved ones to return, of everyday acts of survival and kindness, of the fear experienced by individuals, families, and communities. Even the victory of Hanukkah must have been tinged with deep loss.
What’s more, the Hanukkah victory did not end the war between the Seleucid-Greeks and the Maccabees: military campaigns continued for years thereafter. Statecraft was employed as alliances were made and broken; communities dedicated monuments to their fallen heroes, and even the great Judah the Maccabee died in battle. In short, Hanukkah did not decisively conclude the saga. Rather, it marked a crucial milestone amidst continued sacrifice and uncertainty about the future. And yet, the Jewish leadership established the holiday to hail a crucial milestone.
Incomplete, but sufficient belonging
The Book of Maccabees describes a Jewish civil war in relation to Hanukkah. But that does not fully characterize the story of the Judean state that emerged after the war. True, that state (164 – 63 BCE) was rife with intra-Jewish bickering and general divisiveness, whether political, social, or religious. Yet, the majority of Jews in the second and first century BCE did not belong to any sect.
Moreover, Jews who lived in vibrant communities outside of the land of Israel still viewed themselves as the close kin of Jews who lived in the land of Israel: identifying themselves as Jewish by observing Shabbat and the holidays, circumcising their baby boys, keeping dietary laws, and gathering regularly in synagogues to read and interpret their scriptural traditions. What bound all of these Jews together was more powerful than what divided them.
Accepting that there are no perfect heroes
The character of Hanukkah as we observe it was most explicitly shaped by a rabbinic establishment living hundreds of years after the Hasmonean period. And though the original Hasmoneans (the Maccabees) were the heroes of Hanukkah, these later rabbis viewed them as flawed. After all, the priestly Hasmoneans took over the throne, combining the priestly and monarchic functions in a way that denied the davidic dynasty and compromised the separation of religious and political powers. Nonetheless, the courage of the Maccabees continues to inspire the collective Jewish imagination. This conveys the complicated truth that there are no perfect heroes. The people who stand up, and who are willing to take risks and make sacrifices, become the instruments of salvation – regardless of whether the people in their time, or the later sages, agree with all that they stand for.
These three lessons of the Hanukkah story should inform our celebration this year, at the same time as the impossible realities of the war in Israel:
First, let’s appreciate partial redemptions. This includes the reunion of dozens of hostages with their families and the progress made by the IDF in eradicating Hamas. Acknowledging partial victories becomes a source of gratitude, and it equips us with resilience as we forge ahead, despite uncertainty and difficulty.
Second, let’s take seriously the gains we have made in our commitment to Jewish peoplehood. October 7 has drawn the majority of Jews together, despite significant differences among us. We must try to sustain this sense of Jewish peoplehood without imagining that our disagreements will disappear.
And third, let’s accept the current need and ability to work even with flawed leadership. Many who spent the past year protesting Israel’s current administration have chosen to prioritize the war effort, rather than focusing on that debate. The shift does not mean shelving disagreements about how to wage this war; it means focusing on defeating Hamas and bringing our hostages home.
As we continue to navigate the messy middle of today’s conflict, may the more complex aspects of Hanukkah and its aftermath inspire within us the hope and faith we need to persevere as a people.