12/03/2010 08:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Heroes of Hanukkah: God, Maccabees and You

Hanukkah is a time of heroes, but who those heroes are is not so obvious. The popular story of Divine intervention in the form of a miracle, which caused a small amount of oil to last for eight days instead of one, is a relative late-comer to the holiday. As beautiful a tale as it is, suggesting that there is always more light to found than we first imagine possible, this story of God's miracle was absent from any official telling of the story for at least 350 years after the actual war in ancient Israel.

So if it isn't God the miracle-worker, who plays the part of the story's hero? Is it Judah Maccabee and his band of soldiers fighting against their oppressors? Perhaps, though that story is complicated too.

In some versions, the Maccabees are fighting for nothing less than human dignity and freedom of religious expression. In other version of the story, however, they are enmeshed in an ugly civil war with fellow Jews, fighting about what each side insists is the proper way to be Jewish -- hardly heroic stuff. A closer look at who the Maccabees were may help us figure out who the real heroes of the story are and these days especially, that's an important question.

Some people argue that heroes and heroism are dead, a thing of the past. And sometimes it seems that such people may be correct. After all, do we really have heroes anymore? It seems as soon as a contender emerges, a story appears almost as quickly undermining his or her potential status. And do we really need heroes, anyway?

The answer to these questions is yes and most certainly, though we may have to adjust our sight and the focus of our search to find the real heroes and appreciate how close at hand they may be, perhaps even staring back at us when we look in the mirror. And that's where the story of Hanukkah comes in.

Most of us, Jewish or not, have some knowledge of the story of brave, strong Judah Maccabee and his brothers. But do we recall that he was a small town boy with few material or institutional resources at his disposal when he began his career? In all likelihood there was little special about Judah and his family until circumstance and their own determination presented them with a challenge which they saw as an opportunity.

In a culture that too often substitutes celebrity for heroism, and cynicism for sophistication, we need to recall that part of the story, also. It's the part that reminds us that everyone is already a hero, or at least has the capacity to be one. It's the part of the story that reminds us that no matter who we are, we can live according to our most deeply held values and proudly share them with others.

Each of us, according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, is a living Hanukkah candle capable of spreading our own inner light in the world and living a story of heroism by doing so. Like that little jar of oil, which burned longer than anyone thought reasonable, we can live more brightly than we often imagine, even under the most difficult of circumstances.

Each of us can live our most deeply held values in ways that not only improve our own lives but contribute to the lives of those with whom we live and work. When Ben Zoma teaches us (Avot 4:1) that a hero is one who overcomes his urges or impulses, it is of course possible that he speaks of heroism as an act of self-limitation. But it is also possible that he refers to overcoming the impulse to minimize all that we can do and be.

Perhaps, like Rav Kook, Ben Zoma knows that true heroism begins with a sense of our own capacity and the need to resist the urge to minimize either it, or the obligation to rise up and make use of it in the best way we can. How that heroic spirit expresses itself may be very different from one person to the next, but as Ben Zoma suggests, it's within all of us to do.

What do we have in common with Judah Maccabee? A potential for heroism. In an age when people question whether there really are heroes anymore, Hanukkah reminds us that there are always heroes and we are they -- if we give ourselves permission.