Friday, December 27, 2019 /29 Kislev, 5780
Parashat Mikeitz Genesis 41:1-44:17
Hanukkah is often nicknamed the Holiday of Lights. Ask any child what the holiday of Hanukkah is about, and they will dutifully tell the story of how our ancestors returned to the temple after a long and tiresome battle, in the 2nd century BCE. After they rededicated the temple, the found a small vat of oil that miraculously lasted for eight nights. Light is a powerful symbol of hope and celebration. It’s placement in the Hanukkah story reminds us that God is looking out for us. Just as Israel overcome significant barriers in its creation, 2nd century Jews also experiences the helping hand of God.
It is a beautiful and reassuring message, especially in dark times of turmoil and conflict. But it is not the whole story.
The story of the oil is not mentioned in Jewish texts until hundreds of years after the Hanukkah story takes place, when a Rabbi first mentions it in the Babylonian Talmud (around 400 CE). Up until then, Hanukkah was still considered a holiday of miracles. The miracle was that a small band of Maccabean fighters could overcome the Seleucid army and take back their temple.
It was a task that appeared impossible. As you might remember, King Antiochus had placed edicts on the Jewish people, forbidding them from practicing their religion. He took away the holy temple and transformed it into place to worship the Greek god Zeus. A small band of fighters called the Maccabees engaged the Seleucid army in battle. The Maccabees were vastly outnumbered. Not only were they fighting a full-fledged army, but even large groups of Jews had taken the side of the Hellenists. They were engaged in civil war, as well. Everywhere they turned there were threats. They took to living in the hills, for their own safety. These are tales of individuals who put their lives on the line in the name of a greater cause. When the Greek general Holfenes threatened her hometown of Bethulia, Judith seduced him, and got him drunk enough that she was able to decapitate him. Slowly, this small band of Jewish fighters began to prevail. Miraculously, after much hard work and sacrifice, the Maccabees finally prevailed. The Jews walked back into the temple and rededicated it to God. The word Hanukkah means “rededication” for this very reason. They prevailed because of their courage, and their faith in a better future.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.” The story of Hanukkah teaches us to pray and have hope in God’s interventions. The Maccabees’ swift action reminds us that often miracles require our involvement. On this fifth day of Hanukkah, let us be grateful for God given miracles. And let us continue to partner with God to courageously stand up to injustice, even when the odds are stacked against us. Perhaps a miracle is in store, after all.
Rabbi Cassi Kail