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.
The holiness of these days is found in the very origin of the word “Hanukkah”. The root of the word Hanukkah comes from the term chanuch, meaning “dedication.” Just as the Maccabees rededicated the Temple with that one cruse of oil, Hanukkah inspires us to rededicate ourselves to the sacred partnership we each share with God. Hanukkah teaches us that to be men and women of faith, we must become impatient believers — partners in bringing God’s miracles to be.
It is this miracle of human faith and action which sanctifies the Hanukkah season. This holiday reminds us of our sacred task for people of all faiths, that we should dedicate our lives to bring warmth and light to the cold and dark places of our world. Mai Chanukah? Hanukkah is our holiday of rededication, teaching each of us that every miracle in God’s world, big or small, depends upon our taking that first crucial step.
Aaron Miller is a rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation .
Read more essays by area faith leaders at On Faith/Local