What is the miracle of Hanukkah?
In a word: Power.
For the rabbis of the Talmud, (Shabbat 21b) the miracle was enough oil to power the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem well beyond its projected length.
The rabbis who conjured up this miracle of the oil, attempted to downplay, or even dismiss the other major miracle of power, namely, the victory of the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) over the Greek army – the meager against the mighty. Writing several centuries after the events, the rabbis attempted to lessen the legacy of the Hasmoneans. They felt that the Hasmonean dynasty while having won the war and rededicated the Temple as the central religious and political institution, were extremists drunk with power. The Hasmoneans slaughtered their own people, forced the conversion of thousands of non-Jews due to their annexationist policies, and cozied up to a world superpower which eventually led to our destruction. The rabbis knew that championing the legacy of capricious, egocentric, and whimsical emperors was likely not a good idea.
Their conclusion was that Jewish survival is not a matter of military might or political prudence, important as they both are, but an inner resolve that springs from faith and utter dependence on the power of the Almighty.
That fundamental lesson of Jewish history was driven home with the rabbis’ choice to read the words of the prophet Zechariah as the Haftarah on the Shabbat of Hanukkah:
“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel (who was a leader of a small group of exiles who returned in 537 B.C.E. from Babylon to start what would become the Second Jewish Commonwealth): Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — said the Lord of Hosts (Zech. 4:6).”
And what lessons do we take from this today?
On the one hand, the rabbis were right. It is neither good nor right to fuel the flames of extremism. It is neither good nor right actively to court Jewish zealots who advocate policies of transferring Israel’s non-Jews and millions of Palestinians out of the Greater Land of Israel. We narrowly avoided a political disaster when former PM Netanyahu brought the Kahanist politicians to the fold. And just when we thought they were safely contained in the narrow but stable Opposition, we see the President of Israel, Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog, go directly to the den of extremist Settler-ism to light Hanukkah’s first night’s candle – in the Cave of the Machpela in Hevron. Emphasizing its undeniable connection to the Jewish people, he made a small gesture to the Abrahamic faith traditions who feel connected to this site. But let us not be mistaken. This was a calculated and deliberate decision. As Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote:
“The visit to Hebron is not an afterthought or a symbolic gesture of “unity.” This was the very first Hanukkah-lighting of Herzog’s presidency, and his choice of venue signals how he intends to build his political brand throughout his term and beyond.”
Herzog should learn from the Rabbis’ lesson. Might and Power unchecked eventually spiraled out of control and cost us our sovereignty. The infighting and iron-fisted rulers who annexed non-Jewish populations, and forcibly converted them, are seen as a stain on our people’s historical narrative. Their conduct ought not to be repeated. The coddling of this extremist element in society – not Efrat, Maale Adumim which are seen as more within the consensus, but Hevron – and lighting candles in the exact spot where a Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians during prayer in 1994 will be seen as condoning the extremists and bringing them into the mainstream, awarding undue power and prestige to this fringe element.
Will emPOWERing extremists reach a tipping point after which vast segments of the Jewish People will cease to see the Jewish state as the home of all Jews? Or can we remind those in power to use their power to prevent a calamitous outcome?
Here, relying on God for miracles might not be a wise strategy.
The rabbis were only partially right.
Yes, unbridled power is dangerous. However, let us not ignore the fact that powerlessness is also dangerous. Imagine what would have happened had Maccabees lost? Where would we be now? Let’s also imagine that Israel had not been able to overcome the five neighboring Arab countries in 1948, or had not pre-emptively struck in 1967, etc, etc, etc…
We might not have a State of Israel today.
The Zionist version of the Hanukkah story is also inspired by a rabbinic tradition whereby we are told not to rely on miracles – לָא סָמְכִינַן אַנִּיסָּא (Kiddushin 39b).
According to rabbinic tradition, it was not by military might, nor by military power, but by the steadfast spirit of holiness visited upon them by God that the Maccabees were able to succeed.
But we don’t always have the luxury to rely on miracles. What’s more, our tradition is multi-vocal – no one Biblical or Talmudic verse is the singular expression of Divine Will.
Zechariah’s words were used by the rabbis of the Talmud to reimagine our theological existence. Zechariah’s concerns and prophecies in this connection are not confined to the physical resumption of the Temple’s reconstruction (writing in in 5th-century B.C.E. Jerusalem following the earlier destruction by the Babylonians). They address adherence to the Divine spiritual, ethical, and moral teachings. These alone will ultimately lead to a rebuilt, rededicated, and functioning Temple. It will be the center of a restored Jewish sovereign state and — in messianic terms — of the all-encompassing “kingdom of God” on earth. That Kingdom will embrace all individual nations and peoples under an inclusive umbrella of monotheism and righteousness.
It is the ethical and moral teachings that inform us how to harness and deploy our might and power. Today very few of us look for miracles. We don’t think that resources, budgets, or even strength will come as a result of our faith. While we celebrate the miracles of those days, today’s lesson is the following:
“Rabbi Yannai said: A person should never stand in a place of danger saying that God will perform a miracle for them” (Shabbat 32a)
In short, don’t be in that situation. Yes, amass power and strength so that you don’t need to use it, and save some extra oil for that moment when you might need it. But ultimately the more apt lesson is: יְהֹוָה עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן יְהֹוָה יְבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם׃ (Psalm 29:11)
That God gives our people Power, and only once we have power, then will God bless our people with peace.