WAYLAND, Mass., Nov. 11 (JTA) — Each night for eight nights, at the darkest time of year, we light a candle.
We recite blessings, uniquely Jewish. We speak of the victory of the small band of Maccabees over the giant
We recount the stories of the rededication of the Temple, and of the cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. We
kindle one, then two, then three, and finally eight lights.
The story of the military defeat of the large army by the small one fascinates the young. But as we grow older, we
learn the complexity of the story — the Maccabees fought not only the Greeks, but Hellenized Jews as well, and
they were not very nice to those assimilated Jews.
The nature of our fascination changes. Even as we thank the Maccabees for keeping Judaism alive, we recognize
that if they were with us now in America we might find their politics hard to take.
Our relationship to the story of the cruse of oil also changes as we mature.
For the young, the story is like a fairy tale, but as we experience miracles in our own lives — the constant rebirth of
the natural world, the grandeur of our planet, quiet moments of personal connection — the story becomes for many
a metaphor, rather than the recounting of a real miracle.
Instead, the miracle of Chanukah — intensified in a post-Holocaust world — becomes our very survival, as a people
and as a nation.
As the years go by, our love affair with the candles endures. Their meaning evolves, weaving its way through the
fabric of our maturing years, connecting our historical and personal pasts, and our personal and communal present.
The candles are a constant in our Jewish lives.
How do all these aspects of the holiday come together? What does a military victory have to do with lights in the
darkness? And what is it about those lights that is so powerful? Why do they hold our individual and collective
Like Chanukah, the holiday of Nicanor Day, celebrated on the 13th of Adar, also originated in the time of the
Hasmoneans. It was a celebration of a military victory — the defeat of General Nicanor by the army of Judah.
But Nicanor Day was a celebration only of military victory, and the holiday died out.
Chanukah has survived. But if, like Nicanor Day, it had remained solely military and nationalistic in significance,
could it have lived on?
Perhaps yes. Then, too, perhaps no.
The rabbinic commentary on Chanukah includes a discussion of the rituals of lighting the chanukiah, but nothing
about the military victory.
Many historians believe this tradition is rooted in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. However, with the
codification of the candle- lighting rituals, the rabbis transformed that tradition, they infused both the ritual and the
holiday with Jewish spiritual meaning and, in so doing, they ensured that Chanukah would not fall victim to the same
fate as Nicanor Day.
Life. Warmth. Smiling eyes of children. Freedom. Dispelling of darkness and evil. Family. Dancing. The spiritual
aspect of Chanukah embodied in the kindling of the lights endows the holiday with a transcendent potency that
personalizes it and guarantees its endurance.
The story of the Maccabees — a story of military and political action against the oppressive forces attempting to
destroy Judaism and against the Jews who went along with it — is not unconnected to the tradition of kindling lights
in the darkness of winter.
Stories abound, some true, some legendary, of the power of Chanukah lights. They come out of the days of the
pogroms, out of the Holocaust, even out of the American Revolutionary War. They are all stories about strength
gained through the sacred lights. Like the story of the Maccabees, they tell of survival, of the will to live, of finding
the courage to fight for freedom.
Here, then, is a connection between these two aspects of the holiday. Any real change within oneself inevitably
expresses itself externally and so, as our spiritual strength leads us to change ourselves, it also leads us to action.
In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story, “The Power of Light,” the Chanukah lights gave young David and Rachel the
strength to leave the Warsaw Ghetto and escape to Palestine.
In the tale — whether fact or fiction — of George Washington watching the blazing chanukiah of a Jewish soldier,
the lights helped the general find the strength to cross the icy river and defeat the British at Valley Forge.
Is it any different for us today? Do not the lights of Chanukah give us the strength to connect with some new aspect
of who we are, personally or as a people? Do they not give us the push we may need to reconnect with family or
Do they not give us an ever-evolving insight into what it means to be a Jew?
Spiritual strength of being. It is neither hidden nor unseen.
It is visible and viable every day of our lives, as we manage not only to live but to triumph in this world fraught with
dangers both physical and spiritual. A boy gives his own money to a food pantry. A mother and daughter ascend to
a new level of understanding and intimacy. A young man faces inevitable death from AIDS with serenity and
courage. An elderly woman discovers previously untapped poetic creativity within herself.
In the time of the Maccabees, first there came a military victory and then the kindling of the lights in the Temple.
Today, we kindle the lights first, and from them renew our strength to go out and fight our battles, to touch new
depths of compassion and understanding, to set free our innermost selves.
Katy Z. Allen is a Jewish storyteller and free-lance writer.