12/23/2011 08:34 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2012

Tim Tebow and the Lessons of Hanukkah

Jews tell two very different stories at Hanukkah -- three, if you count the tale about the oil that was not sufficient for even one day of lighting the Temple lamps, but miraculously lasted for eight. The relationship between the two stories may well be the key to the holiday's most important contemporary lesson -- and engage the theological question brought to popular notice this month by quarterback Tim Tebow.

The first Hanukkah story is the one about the Maccabees. Their fight for religious freedom has inspired countless rebels over the centuries; their defiance of tyranny still rings clear after two millennia; their refusal to cross the line separating participation in a pagan culture from actual worship of pagan gods remains highly relevant to believers who negotiate similar dilemmas today. The book of Maccabees tells the story of its eponymous heroes in graphic and exciting detail, with battles aplenty and heroics galore. In the end, the good guys win -- and we still celebrate that victory by lighting candles and eating potato pancakes.

I grew up singing a Zionist tune that draws a direct parallel between the freedom-fighters of ancient Palestine and their descendants in the 20th century. The rhymed Hebrew, freely translated, goes like this:

Who can retell the heroic acts of Israel,

Who can count them?

In every age a hero will arise,

Redeemer of the nation.

Hark, in those days and in this time,

The Maccabee saves and delivers

And in our day, all the people of Israel

Will rise, unite and be redeemed.

The other story of Hanukkah is quite different. It is the one told by the rabbis and sages who created the world of Talmud and midrash in the first several centuries of the Common Era and fashioned much of the Judaism we know and practice today. The Rabbis were not big fans of the Hasmonean rulers who descended from the Maccabees. More importantly, they believed -- and wanted Jews to remember at Hanukkah -- that the victory over the Hellenistic tyrant Antiochus, like the victory over Pharaoh at the Red Sea, was not the result of military prowess. To this day, Jews thank God at Hanukkah in special prayers inserted in the liturgy "for the miraculous deliverance" of the Maccabees -- exactly as the rabbis intended.

"You in great mercy stood by Your people in time of trouble. You defended them, you vindicated them and avenged their wrongs. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of the pure in heart, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. ... Then Your children came into Your shrine, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary, and kindled lights in Your sacred courts. They set aside these eight days as a season for giving thanks and reciting praise to You."

I am as wary as the next person of those who claim divine authority for their battles. Giving God credit for victory in war is a time-honored way of asserting the rightness of your own cause. "Surely God would not come to the aid of the wicked! This proves that I am good." The problem, of course, is that the righteous, the poor, the weak, and the just often come out on the losing side -- an experience that led the prophets of ancient Israel to claim that God was working behind the scenes to punish Israel for its sins by allowing them to be defeated, exiled and forced to worship foreign gods. As harsh as this theology seems -- God allows murder and mayhem to be visited upon Israel, or even delivers the blows personally! -- it was preferable to the belief that human power alone matters in the world. That view would deny a tiny nation all hope of salvation. The poor would be condemned to remain poor. There would be no answer to force of arms but superior force. This view of historyis cruel indeed.

That's why the Jewish sages insisted that God and not Judah Maccabee was the hero of the Hanukkah story.

There was another reason for the rabbis' understanding of the matter as well. They saw the world as a partnership between God and humanity. Creatures of flesh and blood are bound in covenant to their Creator. God wants partners -- even in some sense needs them -- to help bring greater justice and compassion to the world. When Jews recite grace before meals, we bless God, "Who brings forth bread from the earth." We know that a chain of human actors, from farmer to baker, played a role in getting bread to our table. God did not do it all by God's self. But we also know that the process of growth from seed to stalk, the watering of plants by rains from heaven and their ripening with the help of the sun, is miraculous. We did not do it by ourselves either. The same is true when it comes to the battle for justice, the overthrow of tyranny, the wonders of life large and small.

The version of the Hanukkah song that I grew up singing sought to remind Jews of this partnership between the divine and the human by celebrating the achievements of both the Maccabees -- quintessential human actors -- and the rabbis, who served as God's representatives to Israel.

Who can retell the things that befell us,

Who can count them?

In every age a hero or sage

Arose to our aid.

This brings us to Mr. Tebow. Men and women who are grateful to God for daily miracles as well as extraordinary acts of salvation may subscribe to either of the stories of Hanukkah. They may believe, with the first story, that they "won" (whatever winning means in the context of their lives) thanks to their own efforts, backed up by God Who worked on their side. But they may also believe, with the second story, that because they won, they have the chance one more time, for at least one more day, to offer blessing to God. Like the rabbis, they want everything they do, great or small, to be an occasion for thanksgiving to their Creator.

If Tim Tebow is claiming, when he gets down on bended knee and points toward heaven, that God cares about Broncos victories on the football field, his theology frankly strikes me as absurd. I hope and believe that God has better things to worry about than football, even if God's attention span is infinite and therefore able to encompass a lot that lesser beings must leave aside while they are busy doing good. But if the quarterback is not thanking God for his touchdown passes, but rather testifying to the activity of God's strong right arm in the world and thanking God for his life and his gifts, Mr. Tebow is not all that different from the Rabbis who gave credit to "Mattathias, son of Yohanan" and his family of Maccabees for fighting against "cruel power," purifying the Temple, and "kindling lights in God's sacred courts."

Hanukkah means thanking God for help in doing that kind of work -- and summoning the courage to do the work, whether or not God's deliverance is at hand. That's the lesson behind the gifts, the latkes, the dreidels and the brisket. Darkness gives way when we light candles, one after another, week after week, year after challenging and wondrous year.