Chanukah always falls on or near the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice (the shortest day in the year, and thus of course the longest night). Before we know it the days will slowly and then rapidly get longer. If Chanukah appears in a dark place on our calendar, it also appears in a dark place in our history: the Hellenization of Judea that led to the Maccabean revolt.
At the end if the period of the Second Temple after the conquest of Alexander the Great, under the Hellenistic Kingdom of Ptolemaic Egypt (323 – 200 BCE) and then the Hellenistic Kingdom of Seleucid Syria (198 – 160 BCE), Israel was threatened by annihilation from within.
The relationships between Israel and the Greeks were ambiguous: a mixture of fascination and aversion. On the one hand, the Greeks were people who valued education and intellectual pursuits – something the Jews also valued and encouraged. They spoke and wrote a language the Jews admired – the Talmud says that a Kosher Torah scroll can only be written and read in a synagogue in two languages: Hebrew and Greek.
On the other hand, Antiochus, the Greek king, sought to win the Jews over to Greek universalism. Hellenization was a sad but rather painless process. The temple was not pulled down but turned into a gymnasia. Similarly the oil consecrated for Temple service was defiled, not destroyed. The Jews suffered from internal exile as the commitment to Torah and mitzvot was actively discouraged. To paraphrase Dr William Kolbrener, the Greeks had ‘turned sacred into secular’.
To a totally rational mind, the oil that was left undefiled could only last one day. When the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated, the oil should not have lasted for the whole eight-day period of festivities ordered by Judah Maccabee. Lighting the oil in the Temple was an act of faith in the Divine, a hope that there was a force beyond rationalisation and the laws of science but also the belief that there is more to survival than mere victory in battle.
Every evening when we light the Chanukah candles, let us remember that the Jewish response is: ‘Let there be light’. Perhaps this is the true message of Beit Hillel, who instructed us to light an additional candle each night of Chanukah. It is our mission to help spread the light of Tradition and remember that Chanukah is not just the celebration of a battle but first and foremost of hope.