“What is Hanukkah?” the Talmud asks. You may think that Talmud, the authoritative text that is the basis of so much of Judaism, wouldn’t have to ask that question. Shouldn’t it be obvious to them? Yet the Talmud was compiled over 600 years after the historical events of Hanukkah, which took place in 167 B.C.E. Those events and their aftermath were a mix of religious ideals with civil war, empire and intrigue. So the sages of the Talmud are really asking — what is the takeaway of Hanukkah? What are the insights that can speak to us from one generation to the next, and even from one century into the next?
The Talmud answers its own question with the well-known story: When the conquering soldiers of the Syrian-Greek empire entered the Temple in Jerusalem, they polluted all the oil that was used to light the Eternal Light and the Menorah, the holy lamp. So when the Maccabees defeated (temporarily) the empire, their first desire was to restore their holy place and relight the lights. They needed purified oil to do that, yet they found only one cruse of oil, enough for one day, with the seal of the High Priest. A miracle was done, and the light remained lit for eight days, enough time to purify more oil in the ritual way. The sages, therefore, made those eight days a holiday for praise and thanksgiving.
What is the takeaway of this story for us, over 2,000 years later? The Hanukkah story is about a rededication and renewal of holy values, holy space, and holy institutions after a desecration. Put yourself in the shoes of the Judean Maccabees, walking into their holiest of sights, the Jerusalem Temple, which had been ransacked and trashed with violence and greed. Imagine the devastation of seeing what was once so beloved, now so desecrated. What does one do first? How does one make it holy again? How does one not give up in despair?
This past year has been marked by continual desecrations. The “temple,” so to speak, of our highest values — the values of a shared public good and the institutions that attend to that public good — have been ransacked by greed, violence, hate, and exploitation. Where are the biblical values today that have been, in our best moments, held up by our more courageous American leaders? Where are the values of loving the stranger, of caring for the poor and vulnerable, of treating everyone as children of the living God, of caring for our creation? How can we rededicate ourselves to restoring holiness after such desecration? Where do we begin?
Hanukkah comes to teach us that we begin one little cruse of oil at a time. If we can find within us one small cruse of holy oil — the oil of decency, the oil of integrity, the oil of compassion — that small cruse of oil will last us many days, and perhaps many years, as we repair the brokenness of our “temple” of democracy. There is much work to be done. Don’t underestimate the power of a little light. As the Hanukkah folk song says, each person is a small light, but together — we shine.
Caryn Broitman is the rabbi at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, 130 Center St., Vineyard Haven.