Tonight we light the first candle of Chanukah, for it is 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 Chanukah 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 rejected 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 the politically correct thing to say, but this religious festival commemorates a military victory -- of tradition over assimilation, of fundamentalism over modernism, of the atavistic over the advanced.
Well, not exactly. The military aspects of the struggle are scarcely mentioned in today's celebration of Chanukah. The focus has shifted over the centuries. The very name Chanukah, 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 Chanukah is the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Well, not exactly. The essential ritual of the holiday has become the blessing over the Chanukah lights, usually a home ceremony.
A talmudic legend 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 not the redemption of the ancient Temple but the miracle of the lights that took place there.
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. We celebrate His gracious providence, not our military prowess.
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.