By Cantor Russ Jayne
(Calgary) – Stories have great power. We tell stories about ourselves and about our communities because they give our lives meaning, and they help us navigate between the past and the future. We use stories to help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Not far behind the seemingly innocent plots of many of the stories we tell about our community’s religious history lie profound cultural responses to our most pressing questions about what it means to be a human being and how to live life well.
The holiday of Hanukkah offers us at least two stories, which seek to explain why its observance may be compelling. Of course, there is the exciting and courageous story of the Maccabees’ military victory and their role in reclaiming a sense of Jewish national autonomy. What grade-school child, or even Jewish adult doesn’t love to hear or tell tales about the physical acts of heroism performed by our Maccabee brothers and sisters? Competing with this story of military achievement is the pious narrative of the oil lasting for eight days and the rededication of our holy Temple, a deeply inspiring moment in our people’s history.
While each of these stories serves different aspects of our Jewish identities, I would like to share a slightly different recounting of the story of the miracle of Hanukkah, as expressed by Jacob Falk, better known by the title of his book, the Penei Yehoshua.
The true nature of the miracle of Hanukkah according to the Penei Yehoshua is not that one vial of ritually pure oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Indeed, even if they had not found this container of pure olive oil, the menorah in the Temple could still have been kept lit. The Penei Yehoshua reminds us that even open, ritually unfit containers of oil could have been used for the lighting of the menorah after the Temple was rededicated. There is a very interesting law which permits the use of things rendered impure provided they are used for communal needs. So, in truth, there really wasn’t a need after all for the miracle where one day’s worth of pure oil lasted for eight days. Given this understanding, the Penei Yehoshua asks us to reconsider the way we tell the story of Hanukkah and, consequently, to also reconsider its religious meaning.
The story of the oil lasting for eight days does relate a miracle. The question is, how do we interpret the story, and where do we attach meaning? The power of the miracle that G-d performed was not providing oil that we would not have had otherwise. Rather, G-d kept a small quantity of oil miraculously aflame for eight days in order to communicate to the Jewish people that G-d was present in their community. The miracle of the oil was that G-d gave the Jewish community, the very people who had suffered so greatly in their war against the Greeks, a clear sign that G-d had not abandoned this holy nation.
Despite G-d’s silence, or even G-d’s seeming absence, G-d is close. As a result of G-d’s profound love for the Jewish people, G-d wanted to comfort us and not let us slip into despair because of a frustration at the inability to perceive G-d’s immanent presence. The lit menorah is G-d’s eternal sign to the Jewish people and all of humanity that G-d does hear us, and responds to our yearning to be in G-d’s presence. G-d ultimately wants intimacy with us as much as we seek intimacy with G-d.
When we attach this story of the meaning of Hanukkah to the ritual of lighting our hanukkiyot, we affirm our conviction in the belief of the immanence of a caring G-d. In every generation, the Hanukkah candles are testimony that G-d is present and desires intimacy with us. The lights of Hanukkah and the story behind them are our bright light against darkness and despair. The flames dancing from our hanukkiyot announce our belief that there is not even a thin wall between us and G-d.
As I face the world this December, this is the story I need to tell to myself, and one I hope you will tell to your families.
Cantor Russ Jayne is Chazan at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Calgary.