‘A miracle did not happen for us. We did not find a cruse of oil.”
These are the words sung publicly in Israel for many years on the eve of Independence Day, and privately by some on Chanukah. But what do they mean? No miracle? No oil? Isn’t the entire Chanukah saga based on those two factors? Haven’t we stuffed ourselves with latkes for a week because of the little cruse of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days?
As I begin to put away my collection of Chanukah menorahs, I’ve been reflecting on the significance of this holiday and how drastically it has changed in my lifetime. As a young child, I lit candles in a tin menorah given out to day school children (today, of course, these menorahs are in museums). The family menorah was not much more elegant. The only gift I received was a single shiny silver dollar, the Chanukah gelt my parents gave me and my brother. But as I grew, the holiday also grew, in part, to be sure, because of the ever-expanding competition with Christmas, but also for a more important reason: the creation of the State of Israel.
The Zionist revolution changed Chanukah. From a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar that emphasized the cleansing of the Temple and the miracle of the oil, it became a celebration of Jewish nationalism and independence. In Israel it came to symbolize the state itself, and the Maccabees the dedicated people who forged that state.
“A miracle did not happen for us. We did not find a cruse of oil,” some of my secular friends still sing. Religious Jews might take offense at those lyrics (and, in fact, the religious establishment eliminated them from Israel Independence Day celebrations). But the words are not intended to denigrate religious belief. They are meant to show that the victory of the Maccabees resulted from bitter struggles and willingness to die for a cause, the same qualities that led to forming the State of Israel. Neither the Maccabees nor the founders of Israel waited for miracles. They took responsibility for their actions, and devoted themselves to the backbreaking labor of achieving their ends. The song begins, “We are carrying torches through dark nights,” words of a people working to recreate itself after the darkness of centuries of persecution and degradation.
We have only to look back at those dark years to see how views of the Maccabees have changed. The Talmud ignores them and speaks almost exclusively of the lights and the miracle of the oil. Living under the yoke of Roman rule, the sages could relate far more to religious symbolism than to a military victory decades earlier. As late as 1894, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, angered extreme Orthodox authorities in Palestine by publishing an article by his father-in-law that included an activist phrase reminiscent of Judah Maccabee. They reported him to the Turkish rulers as the instigator of a revolt, and he was thrown into jail. But some thinkers kept the Maccabee spirit alive as an ideal for the Jewish people. After the dreadful pogrom in Kishinev in 1903, the great Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik berated the Jews for their passivity in not fighting back. “Sons of the Maccabees,” he called them sarcastically. “Seek light! Seek light!” he admonished them.
The Maccabee reputation rose as Zionism flourished. Their revolution had succeeded as no other before Zionism had. In the second century, Simeon Bar Kokhba had led thousands of followers to disaster in his rebellion against Rome. In the 17th century, Shabbetai Zvi had deceived hundreds of thousands with his false claim to be the messiah. But the Maccabees and their small band of followers had won a great victory over powerful Syrian forces. How could Zionists not identify with these heroic fighters?
Chanukah took on a new life with the birth of Israel, revolving around the courage of the Maccabees and the courage of the Jewish nation. And the excitement of the holiday there has spilled over here, making it far more significant and joyful than it ever was in my childhood.
But what about the miracle? In Israel and outside it, Jews lit Chanukah menorahs last week and sang the holiday songs. Many secular Israelis said the same blessings and sang the same songs as the religious. They may have denied the Chanukah miracle. They may have given the words different meaning, but they sang them nevertheless. So maybe an additional miracle has emerged from Chanukah: the miracle of unity. At least for a week, the Jewish people were united, in Israel and the diaspora, secular and religious, in celebrating the victory of the small over the large, the light over the darkness. May that unity continue long after the holiday. n
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”