Lighting the Light

Lessons in hope, courage, purity, and faith, from the Maccabees and the Hanukkah miracles.


Reprinted with permission from
The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year
(Aviv Press).


The Maccabees were fighters. The early Maccabean leaders rose in revolt against the Seleucid tyranny and its Jewish collaborators who were turning Jerusalem into a Greek city, but the later leaders were no less power-seek­ing and corrupt than those whom their elders had made their reputation by defeating. For this and other reasons, they were little loved by the Rab­bis, who accorded their victories hardly any space in the vast literature of the Talmud.candles in the dark hanukkah hanukiyah

But there remain three achievements to their credit. They had the vision to fight an impossible war and the courage to win. Once they had regained the Temple precincts, they had the persistence to search them until they found a vessel marked with the High Priest’s seal. Then, although the oil they found was really far too little, they filled the lamps on the Menorah and set them alight, trusting in whatever would be. These three acts represent the essential stages of leadership and inspiration.

Looking Past the Ruins

The Temple was defiled; Jerusalem, ruled by renegades, was in the grip of a foreign and antagonistic culture. But what the Maccabees saw was not defeat; they beheld the Temple as it would be–rebuilt. Look at the world in any age, in any place, and one has the same choice. One can either see only destruction and misery, the unending testimony of disappointment. Or one can see, together with and in defiance of it, striving, courage, and compassion, an ineradicable humanity in the humbling struggle to trans­form defeat into new hope.

One can see only the ruins of the Temple, or one can see the rebuilding as well.

My friend, who works with victims of torture and persecution, shared with me a moving example of just this endeavor. An old peasant and a young man whose family had been killed for their political beliefs met in prison. One day the elderly man was brutally beaten. The young man com­forted him, telling him that he would teach him to read, an opportunity his harsh fortunes had until then denied him. This, he said, would be the victory. By reading together they would make an affirmation of their com­mon humanity. No amount of force could ever take that away.

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Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg serves as rabbi of New North London Synagogue. His other publications include Three Pillars of Judaism: A Search for Faith and Values and The Laws of Life: A Guide to Traditional Jewish Practice at Times of Bereavement.

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