Hanukkah, Festival of Lights: What stories are made of
The story of Hanukkah has it all. It’s the stuff stories are made of. It’s a tale full of miracles, military battles and politics. From the Hasmonean dynasty’s rise of under-manned power under Judah (known commonly as Judah Maccabee) to the miraculous story of the oil and the political struggle between religion and ruling government, it’s a story that deserves its continual retelling.
In Jewish communities across the globe, Jews will celebrate this holiday because of this story. Yet, upon closer examination, there might be a missing component of the story on the surface. When we consider other tales and especially movies of today, it seems a love story is missing from this Hanukkah tale.
Yet, perhaps there’s quite a powerful love story that takes some thinking to discover. You see, I am in love with Hanukkah. Many Jews love the excitement as the holiday nears. I believe the love story just might be present, and it’s about the love between the Jewish people and the story itself. The story shares details about an oppressive ruler, the Greek-Assyrians, denying the Jewish population the ability to practice Judaism. The Jewish Hasmonean leadership, led by Judah (Maccabee) revolts.
While they’re quite out-numbered and under powered, they triumph over their foe and retake the ancient temple. Upon entering the destroyed ruins, the Maccabees, as they become known, are eager to celebrate a belated festival. As they uncover ritual objects, the tale goes, they discover a small cruse of oil enough to light the temple lamps, menorahs, for only one night.
Miraculously the oil sustains the lamps for eight nights, hence the eight nights of Hanukkah and the nine branched menorah (the ninth branch serves to light all the others). This becomes the Hanukkah — rededication of the ancient temple.
You see, this story has something for everyone and perhaps that’s why it’s a beloved tale. For the action and adventure fans, we can connect with the military prowess and bravery of Judah Maccabee. We may even find inspiration in the story of the underdog, as the Maccabees were far out-numbered. Yet, some people are more curious about the political struggles and how an ancient civilization reconciled religion and politics. We see in this story the way, through oppression, the Greek-Assyrians dealt with the minority Jews. Yet, in the end, it’s the faithful who triumph, it’s their love of Judaism that prevails.
It’s about holding tight to one’s identity, for the Jews, that rules the day in the end. And even more, the story of the oil, that miraculous cruse of oil that surprises everyone is another piece to fall in love with. The flame represents so much and for some who retell the story each year, the light it was able to give off for eight nights is an inspiration. It’s encouraging to see what’s possible at the darkest time of the year, as Hanukkah always falls near the winter solstice.
So, the legend of Hanukkah is what stories are made of. It’s complete with action and adventure, with the drama of faith and politics and a touch of the miraculous. The love story is what enables this tale, and the holiday to which it gave rise, to be retold in every generation, for it’s our Jewish people’s love of the legend that carries it from one generation to the next. As our local Jewish community, Temple Bat Yam embraces the festival of lights — Hanukkah — we hope everyone will feel the miracle of this season, the light and its warmth. From our community to all of you — happy holidays!
Evon J. Yakar is Rabbi at Temple Bat Yam in South Lake Tahoe.