This evening we light the first candle on the Hanukkah menorah, for it's the first night of this minor eight-day Jewish holiday that's become a major one over the years. There are blessings to be recited, songs to be sung, latkes to be eaten . . . . But just what does Hanukkah celebrate?
Answer: A successful Jewish revolt against a Syrian empire ruled by the Seleucid dynasty of Greek kings some 2,200 years ago.
Well, not exactly. The revolt was not so much against the Syrian emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, as against his attempt to impose Hellenistic culture on ancient Judaea.
Well, not exactly. It's not noised about, but this now-celebrated revolt against the Syrians was really something of a civil war between those Jews who proposed to adopt more of the fashionable Greek culture and those who rebelled against it. The rebels viewed its games and gods as a desecration, and fought for the old ways, the ancient practices and beliefs.
It may not be noised about in some politically correct circles, but this festival commemorates a military victory in a civil war -- of tradition over assimilation, of fundamentalism over modernism.
Well, not exactly. The military aspects of the struggle are scarcely mentioned in today's celebration of Hanukkah. The focus has shifted over the centuries. The very name Hanukkah, or Dedication, now refers to the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by pagan rites.
After all, the holiday isn't named for any particular battle or campaign or hero. It isn't the Feast of the Maccabees, who led the revolt. Therefore the real theme of Hanukkah is the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Well, not exactly. The essential ritual of the holiday has become the blessing over the Hanukkah lights. A talmudic story tells how the liberators of the Temple found only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day, but it lasted for eight -- enough time to prepare a new supply. We're really celebrating the miracle of the lights.
In the glow of the candles, the heroic feats of the Maccabees have become transmuted into acts of divine intervention. The blessing over the candles recited each night of the holiday goes: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old.'' Miracles, not victories.
At Passover, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is told with the same moral attached: It is He who delivered us, not we who freed ourselves. Freedom is a gift from God, not men.