THE BLOG
12/08/2012 05:42 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2013

Hanukkah's Inextinguishable Light of Hope

What I find fascinating about Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights we celebrate at this time of the year, is the way its story was transformed by time.

It began as the simple story of a military victory, the stunning success of Judah the Maccabee and his followers as they fought for religious freedom against the repressive rule of the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus IV. Antiochus, who modestly called himself Epiphanes, "God made manifest," had resolved forcibly to Hellenise the Jews.

He had a statue of Zeus Olympus erected in the precincts of the temple in Jerusalem, ordered sacrifices to be made to pagan gods, and banned the practice of Jewish rites on pain of death. The Maccabees fought back and within three years had reconquered Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. That is how the story is told in the first and second books of Maccabees.

However, things did not go smoothly thereafter. The new Jewish monarchy known as the Hasmonean kings themselves became Hellenized. They also incurred the wrath of the people by breaking one of the fundamental principles of Judaism: the separation between religion and political power. They became not just kings but also high priests, something earlier monarchs had never done. That may have been the reason why the books of Maccabees were never incorporated in the Hebrew Bible.

Even militarily, the victory over the Greeks proved to be only a temporary respite. Within a century Pompey invaded Jerusalem and Israel came under Roman rule. Then came the disastrous rebellion against Rome (66-73), as a result of which Israel was defeated and the Temple destroyed. The work of the Maccabees now lay in ruins.

There were rabbis at the time who believed that the festival of Hanukkah should be abolished. Why celebrate a freedom that had been lost? Others disagreed, and their view prevailed. Freedom may have been lost but hope was not yet lost. That was when another story came to the fore, about how the Maccabees, in the course of purifying the Temple, came across a single cruse of oil, its seal still intact, from which they were able to relight the menorah, the great candelabrum that stood in the Temple. Miraculously the light lasted eight days and that became the central narrative of Hanukkah. It became a festival of light within the Jewish home symbolising a faith that could not be extinguished. Its message was captured in a phrase from the prophet Zekhariah: "Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, says the Lord Almighty."

I have often wondered whether that is not the human story, not just the Jewish one. We celebrate military victories. We tell stories about the heroes of the past. We commemorate those who gave their lives in defence of freedom. That is as it should be. Yet the real victories that determine the shape of civilizations and the long-term fate of nations are not so much military as cultural, moral and spiritual.

In Rome there is a famous monument known as the Arch of Titus. It was erected by Titus' brother Domitian to commemorate the victorious Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70. It shows Roman soldiers triumphantly carrying away the spoils of war, most famously the seven-branched Menorah itself. Rome won that military conflict. Yet its civilization eventually declined and fell, while Jews and Judaism survived.

They did so not least because of Hanukkah itself. That simple act of families coming together to light the lights, tell the story and sing the songs, proved more powerful than armies and longer-lived than empires. What endured was not the historical narrative as told in the books of Maccabees but the simpler, stronger story that spoke of a single cruse of oil that survived the wreckage and desecration, and the light it shed that kept on burning.

Something in the human spirit survives even the worst of tragedies, allowing us to rebuild shattered lives, broken institutions and injured nations. That to me is the Jewish story. Jews survived all the defeats, expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, the centuries in which they were regarded as a pariah people, even the Holocaust itself, because they never gave up the faith that one day they would be free to live as Jews without fear. Whenever I visit a Jewish school today I see on the smiling faces of the children the ever-renewed power of that faith whose symbol is Hanukkah and its light of inextinguishable hope.