The Gemara in Meseches Shabbos begins an in-depth discussion of Chanukah with the words, Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah? This question is not asked about any other holiday, and for good reason. We know what Pesach is, we know what Purim is, we even know what Lag B’omer is, but Chanukah is far more complicated.
For starters, Chanukah is not mentioned explicitly in the Mishna, a rather glaring omission. This led the Chasam Sofer to suggest that Rav Yehuda HaNasi, the author of the Mishna deliberately ignored Chanukah because the Maccabees, or the Chashmonaim, who were priests, defied an ancient tradition that no tribe other than Judah would ever assume the throne. Worse yet, the Chashmonai dynasty quickly became corrupt and was an embarrassment to the Jewish People. Rav Yehuda HaNasi was himself a descendant of the Judean kings and you can only imagine that his family, for centuries, were quite angry at the heroes of our Chanukah story.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nachmanides points out that Chanukah was not only not a full-fledged redemption, it was the beginning of the end. You see, the Maccabees were having a hard time repelling the Greeks, and so Judah the Maccabee decided to sign a treaty with a small nation called the Romans – and it was great in the short term, the Romans helped the Jews defeat the Greeks. But when the Greek Empire crumbled, and the Roman empire started to gain strength, guess who they turned on?
And before long, the Judean Empire was a Roman vassal state. That relationship, as we all know, ended quite poorly, with the destruction of the Temple.
And, if we were to dig just a little bit deeper, we would learn that the Maccabean wars weren’t really a battle between the Greeks and Jews. It was a battle between Hellenized Jews and traditional Jews. Yes, the Greeks supported the Hellenized Jews, they fought with the Hellenized Jews, but the battles of Chanukah were more of a civil war than anything else. It was Jew vs. Jew. It was those who wanted to bring Greek culture and religion into Judaism against those who did not.
Which brings me to the next myth about Chanukah – I was trying to find the text of the speech from the White House Chanukah party hosted by former president George H.W. Bush – who we are mourning this week, someone we are indebted both as Jews and as Americans for his service to this country.
Turns out there was no speech because the White House Chanukah party only started under the Clinton administration… But I am sure if he had given a speech, he would have said what so many other presidents and Western dignitaries have said about Chanukah – it is a holiday that celebrates religious freedom. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. Right?
Only that it wasn’t and isn’t.
The Maccabees weren’t exactly zealots as some would like you to believe, they were rather tolerant of the Hellenization of their brethren up until a point, but they were definitely not fighting for religious freedom; they were fighting because they believed the religion of the Greeks was wrong, and they were willing to kill not only Greeks, but fellow Jews, who disagreed. This was no pluralistic, religious-freedom group of hippies from Northern California…
And the final misunderstanding and distortion of Chanukah – Chanukah presents and even the game of dreidel. Full disclosure – I play dreidel with my kids and give them presents, but apologetics aside, they are both most probably derivatives of Christmas customs. And latkes! Latkes obviously did not exist in ancient Israel, when potatoes didn’t make it across the ocean until the 18th century.
So Mai Chanukah? What in the world is this holiday all about?
I would suggest that these questions are the answer. That the muddle and the mess; the in-fighting, the short-lived victory, the dark-of-night celebration, that is the point – all of that reflects the nature of this unique holiday. And that’s because Chanukah is not a holiday of redemption, it’s a holiday of exile.
Whereas Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos celebrate the past, Chanukah, in so many ways, celebrates the present. Its most basic symbolism is a little light in a lot of darkness. Because that’s where we’re at, ladies and gentlemen, we are living in a lot of darkness, with a little bit of light.
For example, there’s a page on Wikipedia, titled, List of Israeli public officials convicted of crimes. It’s quite long, and as the opening paragraph points out, it only includes those in the highest levels of government. Great! It’s a list to which, as those of you following Israeli news know, Prime Minister Netanyahu may soon be added as he is being charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Last week, Operation Northern Shield was launched in Israel. The large and elaborate tunnels constructed by Hezbollah in the north has gotten so bad that a large-scale operation is underway to destroy them and protect the Northern border.
And here in our own shul, in the land of the free, we have Dani, the most jovial security guard – and most intimidating one, standing outside looking out for intruders who may just want to attack defenseless Jews praying in shul.
It sounds a whole lot like the Chanukah story of old – infighting, corruption of government, at least alleged corruption, and never-ending battles for safety. Mai Chanukah? What’s Chanukah?
2018 is Chanukah. This is Chanukah.
Because you see what Chanukah reminds us is that yes, there is a whole lot of darkness, but there’s also light. And that light, as small it is, is worth celebrating.
Politics in Israel may terribly divisive and terribly corrupt – but we have a State of Israel.
The borders may be attacked from time – but we have an army, a rather good one.
We may have a security guard standing outside – but we’re inside, and we feel safe, and we have the opportunity to pray and to practice our religion in a way that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of.
And the more you think about the lights of Chanukah, the lights of 2018, the more you realize that those lights are not that small, they’re quite bright. There’s a whole lot to celebrate and to be thankful for – l’hodot ul’hallel, and that’s what this holiday really is – It’s an exercise in thanking G-d for all the stories that don’t have a happy ending; it’s being ill, but thankful to be alive. It’s being lonely, but still having someone to share your loneliness with – or at least the awareness of how you fell. It’s being unhappy with where you are in life and being able to dream of a better tomorrow. It’s an exercise in thanking G-d for the small things in life, like the fact that we’re alive, in this room, together, even when there’s so much darkness to deal with all around us. It’s precisely the ambiguity and controversy of the Chanukah story that makes it the most relevant holiday on the Jewish calendar.
May we learn to see that light, even in the darkest of times, may we recognize the source of that light, even when we don’t see Him, and may that light, like the light of our Menorahs, be mosif v’holeich, may the light increase ever so steadily until our small light in the darkness transforms into the brilliant light of day. Good Shabbos.