The Real Heroes of Hanukah? Us

This is the d’var Torah that I shared at Congregation Kol HaNeshama tonight:

Tonight is the fourth night of Hanukah, the holiday of, as Adam Sandler put it, eight crazy nights.

There are several basic facts that we all know about the holiday: Who is the hero of Hanukah? Judah Maccabee. Why? Because he led a small army of zealots that defeated the much, much larger Syrian-Greek army. And the miracle? The oil that lasted eight days.

But there are two perspectives on the story of the oil that were new to me.

One comes from a Polish scholar named Jacob Falk, who lived in the 1700s. He pointed out that they didn’t actually need consecrated oil.

Any oil would have been acceptable, even from open, ritually unfit containers. That’s because the rabbis of the Talmud anticipated that there might be just such a situation, and they deemed it permissible to use ritual items that are impure, if they are used to meet communal needs.

Falk believed that the miracle occurred not because they needed the special oil, but because God wanted to communicate to the people God’s presence in the community. Without a miracle, there would be nothing special, nothing in particular to celebrate, beyond a military victory. And God wanted us to remember that we are not alone. The message of Hanukkah is that God is with us, in good times and bad.

A different perspective comes from Rabbi Edward Feinstein, a modern scholar. He reminds us that this part of the story is apocryphal; while the military success does have historical authenticity, the miracle of the oil was a much later addition to the Hanukah story.

But instead of asking if the miracle of the oil is true or not, he asked a completely different question:

Who hid the oil? Because if it was out in the open, the Greeks would have destroyed it. Someone must have had the foresight to squirrel away one flask of the special oil for the eternal lamp. Just in case.

According to him, that person is the real hero of Hanukkah. The one who had the forethought to plan for an uncertain future, to ensure that when the Jewish people once again began observing the rituals of their religion, everything would be ready for them.

He wrote: “The one who hid the oil is my Hanukkah hero. This one is my spiritual ancestor. Because of that vision and faith, there are tiny bits of light, sparks of holiness, hidden all over the world — buried behind the walls of callousness and the altars of superficiality.”

As I pondered this view of the Hanukkah hero, I thought about us, and all of the other Jews across America who are lighting their menorahs tonight. According to the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, there are some 6.7 million of us. We know that participating in a Passover Seder and lighting Hanukkah candles are among the most cherished practices, even among those who do nothing else Jewish during the year.

Let’s guess that half of them are lighting Hanukkah candles tonight. That adds up to 16,750,00 candles. Nearly 17 million tiny flames dancing in homes, on windowsills, and on tables like ours. On the last night of the holiday, that would be 27 million candles in the US alone.

And even if only one-tenth of American Jews light a menorah next Tuesday night, more than six million candles will shine across our nation.

The significance of that number is not lost on us.

So who are the heroes of Hanukkah? Maybe it’s us. Because we have dedicated ourselves to rededicating this holiday, the name of which means dedication. To making Hanukkah personal. To making it important. To making it communal. To remembering who we are.

And what truly will make us the heroes of our own Hanukkah story, is when we take those millions upon millions of tiny sparks into our hearts, and with God’s help, use them to light the world.

The second blessing that we recited over the candles tonight says: “Blessed are you God, who performed miracles for our ancestors, in their day, to this day.”

We don’t celebrate a miracle that happened just one time, long ago. We celebrate the ongoing miracle of our people, of our ability to bring light into the world. May we continue to shine brightly.