Mai Chanukah? “What is Hanukkah?” our ancient sages ask. For Jews, this season commemorates the miraculous victory of the Maccabees, when a ragtag band of dedicated Israelites rose up to defend their tiny nation against the Selucid army — the mightiest in the world. This season is a time of great miracles, celebrating the courage that forever shaped the Jewish future. The Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukkah story, were Jews of faith. But they were impatient believers — trusting deeply in God, but refusing to wait for God to act. Because of their righteous impatience, the Maccabees became partners with God in transforming the world, and their courage and determination teach us that God does not act alone. As the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”
The Hanukkah miracle is about more than a grand Jewish victory. The Jewish people today celebrate Hanukkah in their homes by lighting the menorah (the Jewish candelabra symbolizing the eight nights of Hanukkah), and adding one new light with each of the eight passing days. This ritual commemorates the other Hanukkah miracle — the miracle of oil. To crush the Jewish spirit, the Selucids defiled the sacred Temple and transformed it into a palace of idolatry. After overthrowing the Selucids, the Maccabees returned to the Temple to discover one unbroken cruse of oil to light the ancient menorah, enough for only one night of light. Yet instead of waiting for more oil to be made, the Maccabees lit the menorah and rededicated the Temple that day, and the oil miraculously lasted for eight nights. This Jewish celebration of light commemorates a miracle seemingly insignificant in comparison to the victory over the Selucids, but in truth, it is the same miracle. Only after we, God’s partners, take that first step can we ask for God to join us.