Mai Hanukka — What is Hanukka?
The rabbis were asking this question in the Talmud, aware that the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil were subject to many interpretations.
Is it a holiday of religious freedom? After all, the Seleucid rulers of Judea had essentially outlawed Judaism, and the Judeans were fighting for their right to worship their way in their land. Hanukka’s villains are those who would suppress religious freedom, and its heroes are those who fight for it.
Is it a holiday about resisting assimilation? Like many of the people conquered by the Hellenists, the Jews were surely tempted to adopt their conquerors’ ways — and certainly many did. Judah Maccabee and his followers resisted the lure of the dominant culture and fought for a religion uncontaminated, like the temple oil, by outside influences.
Is it a holiday about Zionism? For centuries, the story of the Maccabees inspired Jews in their dreams of Israel. They recounted the rebels’ underdog military victory and their success in restoring Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem and ousting Antiochus’ legions from Palestine.
Is it a holiday about hope? We light the menora during the darkest time of the year, when dark days might lead to dark thoughts. But the number of candles increases each day, increasing the light and symbolizing our hope that things will get better.
In fact, Hanukka is a holiday about all these things, even when the lessons seem contradictory. That, after all, is the Jewish way, and another lesson: We come to our celebrations both as individuals and as members of a people. We find our own meanings in our rituals — but we find them together. It’s the happy paradox of a Happy Hanukka.