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The Real Miracle of Hanukah

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

We are all familiar with the story of Hanukah. After the Greeks continued to restrict Jewish practices, a small group of Jewish Torah scholars rebelled and formed a rebellious uprising, defeating the Greeks. They rededicated the Temple, which was ransacked, by lighting the Menorah with the only jug of pure oil left. Although there was only enough oil to last for one day, it burned for eight days.

Is the miracle of Hanukah that a group of Torah scholars defeated the most powerful army of the time? Or is it that the oil burned for eight days?

In his book, Ascending Jacob’s Ladder, Rav Yaakov Hillel explains that the military victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks was not sufficient to establish Hanukah as a Jewish holiday. Hanukah was not simply a physical battle. The Greeks weren’t trying to kill the Jews; they were trying to kill Judaism. In this way, Hanukah was a spiritual battle. Thus, according to Rav Hillel, the miracle of the jug of oil teaches us that the real victory of Hanukah was a victory of light against darkness.

The real battle that took place was between the “light” of Jewish values and the “darkness” of Greek philosophy. Ken Spiro, a Jewish historian, points out that even though the Greeks are credited for establishing Democracy, their values and practices were far from Democratic. They practiced infanticide, a direct contradiction to respect for life. Only land-owning males had voting rights and education was reserved for a small elite. Family stability was non-existent as men were encouraged to take wives only in order to have children, but pursue love affairs elsewhere.

In addition, Greek philosophy denied spirituality completely, favoring the natural order above all. This explains the Greek ban on Circumcision, Shabbat, and celebrating the New Moon- Jewish practices that attribute spiritual meaning to the physical world through sanctifying the body, soul, and time, respectively.

Obviously, Judaism is a far cry from ancient Greek philosophy. As Jews, we believe that our mitzvot have spiritual meaning. Additionally, Ken Spiro explains how Jewish values are actually the foundation for modern democracy. For instance, the Ten Commandments forbid murder, an expression of the Jewish belief that we are all created in the image of G-d. Throughout history, Jews have always pursued social justice and education for all. The list goes on.

According to Rav Hillel, we are still fighting a battle between light and darkness today. Holding on to a Jewish life of meaning faces new, additional threats in the 21st century: the overwhelming emphasis on materialism; the distraction that comes with modern technology; the increased focus on ourselves as oppose to the collective; and the impatience of wanting immediate satisfaction without hard work. And as if that weren’t enough, we Jews also face the threat of radical Islamists, who seek to kill Jews and destroy Judaism.

As a Jewish nation, if we wish to win this eternal battle of light against darkness in the modern age, we must hold on to our time-tested values and traditions. Even though we are a small minority, the lights of the menorah in the dark winter nights teach us that “a small flame of light will dispel vast expanses of darkness.”[1]

[1] Ascending Jacob’s Ladder, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, p.89

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