In 175 B.C., Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV invaded Judea, outlawing fundamental Jewish practices and violating the temple with a statue of Zeus and the sacrifice of impure animals on the altar. The Maccabees arose in response; this group of Jewish guerilla warriors undertook an uprising led by Mattityahu and his five sons. That revolt was successful, and by 165, the temple had been recaptured and cleaned–with a new altar dedicated, fit for sacrifices to the God of Israel. One problem remained: According to Exodus 27:21, lamps were to burn all night, every night, lit from pure, consecrated olive oil. And only one such jar of oil was found–enough for one day. But that small jar of oil lasted for eight days, the length of time it took to bring more pure oil to Jerusalem. And thus, the holiday of Hanukkah was born.
In short, Hanukkah is a celebration of two things: a military victory and a spiritual victory. A people’s triumph over the bad guys and a people’s quest for holiness. Jews light an additional candle each night until a full blaze of eight candles lights up the darkness.
But there is no necessary reason for this addition to the lighted candles. In fact, the two most important proto-rabbinic schools of thought disagreed about how to light Hanukkah lights. In contrast to what we might take for granted, the school known as the House of Shammai insisted that we begin the holiday with eight candles and light one fewer each night of Hanukkah. His argument was one based on a model that sought to fill in sacrifices missed during the war. The House of Hillel, on the other hand, championed the format that we are familiar with today: starting with a single light and increasing each night. Hillel’s argument was based on a completely different way of seeing–an orientation not backward to a historical event of military conquest, as was Shammai, but rather toward something not caught in history, toward something extra-historical, supra-historical: holiness.
Shammai is focused on the defeat of the enemy, and like all historical events, its impact–like the candles–diminished over time. Hillel is focused instead on the holiness that resulted from this military victory, and that just as holiness increased with the rededication of the altar, so should the lighting reflect an increase in holiness. According to this way of thinking, Hanukkah points us not to just a single “historical” miracle, but an ongoing “sup ahistorical” one.
Because while the Maccabees themselves make for an exciting story, and while that victory was tremendously important for the freedom of Jewish practice, its impact did indeed diminish over time. More than diminished. It ended up with the reign of some of the most corrupt and power-hungry rulers in the form of the Hasmonean dynasty, whose infighting and ambition invited Rome in to rule Judea from 63 B.C. as a protectorate. Power corrupts unless it is guided by holiness. Human power must be subservient to holiness–to the guidance of God.
There is no doubt (we live in a dark time) that, surrounded by lawlessness and cruelty, human power is running out of control. We are ready to do something-anything–to make it stop. Our souls, our hearts, are eager and desperate, but our hands are not able to do as much as our souls demand. But here’s the kicker. Where do we do that? Where do we start?
Jews are not obligated to light Hanukkah candles at city hall. We are not obligated to light Hanukah candles at the mall. We are not obligated to light Hanukkah candles at synagogue. We are obligated to light Hanukah candles at home. In growing the light, we are reminded to start where we are planted, in the place and among the people we take most for granted.