Paul Greenberg

Hanukkah isn't mentioned in the Old Testament. The swashbuckling stories of battles and victories have been relegated to the Apocrypha. A mere military victory rates only a secondary place in the canon. The victory is to be celebrated not for its own sake, but for what it reveals.

One more violent confrontation has left history, and entered the realm of the sacred. A messy little guerrilla war in the dim past of a forgotten empire has become something else, something that partakes of the eternal.

The central metaphor of all religious belief -- light -- reduces all the imperial intrigue and internecine warfare of those tumultuous times to shadowy details. And that may be the greatest miracle of Hanukkah: the transformation of the oldest and darkest of human activities, war, into a feast of illumination.

There is more than a single theme to this minor but not simple holiday. One can almost trace the ebbs and flows of Jewish history, its yearnings and fulfillments, its wisdom and folly, its holiness and vainglory, by noting which themes of Hanukkah have been emphasized when.

History may say a good deal more about the time in which it is written than the time it describes. The message of Hanukkah changes from age to age because the past we choose to remember is the truest reflection of any present. When Hanukkah is celebrated with pride, a fall is sure to come. When it inspires humility, hope is kindled.

If there is one, unchanging message associated with this minor holiday magnified by changing times, it can be found in the portion of the Prophets designated to be read for the sabbath of Hanukkah. It is Zechariah 4:1-7, with its penultimate verse:

Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.

Exactly.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.