Our Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah is taken from the prophet Zechariah, Chapter 4. It envisions the lampstand once again in the Temple in the Jerusalem, as the angel explains its meaning. Verse 6 proclaims: “Then he explained to me as follows: ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel. Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said the LORD of Hosts.’’ We in the Reform Movement particularly know this verse as it was popularized in the beloved song by Debbie Friedman, ז”ל, “Not By Might, Not By Power,” with which (hopefully) all our Religious School and Youth Group kids are quite familiar. The primary verse of Debbie’s song goes: “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace!”
Debbie plays beautifully upon this verse from Zechariah, particularly since the Rabbis of the Talmudic period fixed this section as the Haftarah for this Shabbat. But, my friends, let’s be real. In actuality, the celebration of Chanukah is rooted in a major military victory by Judah the Maccabee and his foot soldiers, as they defeated the army of the Syrian despot Antiochus IV, who had defiled the Temple as he tried to prohibit the practice of Judaism in the land of Israel. “Chanukah,” as we remember, means “dedication.” When the Jews defeated the Syrians, Judah and his army held an eight-day festival to “rededicate” the Temple to the God of Israel on 25 Kislev, 165 BCE. That is history.
Not by might, nor by power? Not according to Judah the Maccabee! But as the Talmudic period progressed, Jewish observance had to become more insulated and systematized as it coped with the realities of Roman rule. As a result, the Rabbis became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating a military victory, as it might stimulate militaristic impulses among the Jews, which ultimately would be deleterious to their well-being as a community until something could realistically bring them out from under Roman rule. Extremism had no place in the community for the Rabbis. So the Rabbis looked at the rededication ceremony, which of course required pure olive oil for the lamps that flanked the altar of the Temple, and wrote into the Talmud the story of how, when Judah’s soldiers expelled the Syrians from the Temple, they only found one jar of pure olive oil, only enough for one night. But the Festival of Rededication would be an eight-day festival (most probably modeled upon the Festival of Sukkot). And then, THE MIRACLE! That single jar of oil lasted for eight days and nights to keep the lamps on the altar burning!
What, then, do the Rabbis encourage us to celebrate? Not raw military might, but the story of the miracle of the oil for rededication. As the letters on the draydl would indicate, NES GADOL HAYAH SHAM – A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED THERE. (By the way, the letters on Israeli draydls stand for NES GADOL HAYAH PO – A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED HERE!) It is a powerful message: the pursuit of peace is a more desirable aspiration for us as Jews.
Modern secular Zionists have rejected this pacifistic miracle-driven portrayal of this festival. This controversy continues among our people. Most of us are willing to acknowledge both the militarism of the history, and the more fantasy-driven miracle of the oil. Either way, the Festival of Chanukah is one of our most beloved as Jews, and brings its message of light into the darkness of the season, and of the times. And indeed, we are living in rather dark and dangerous times at this very moment. Thus we all hope that the lights of Chanukah will help to illumine our community and our world, particularly at this time of trouble.
A Chag Urim Sameach to all – a joyous Festival of Lights!