Two years ago, on the second night of Hanukkah, my father passed away. Frankly, I imagine he had booked the date, himself, in advance, so the timing could not have been more appropriate. That year, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah shared a day of mutual observance; my father left this world accompanied by his two favorite holidays. As a rabbi, he saw a deep confluence between them. To him, both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving were about freedom and hope and the role we play in our own redemption.
He felt there is clearly a dichotomy in our understanding of what actually constitutes the miracle of Hanukkah, and thus the key reasons for its observance. On one hand we all know of the great military victory of the Maccabees, led by Judah, who despite their smaller and lesser equipped army, were able to chase the Syrian-Greeks of Jerusalem and reclaim the Temple. (In fact, I played Judah Maccabee in many school plays, featuring the King of Latkes and other important Jewish figures, a hotly contested part I might add. I always loved the sword and shield I got to take home as a souvenir.) In this instance, the miracle of Hanukkah is clear: God brought victory to a rag-tag Jewish army over a mighty power. It’s a story for our time but also one that resonated for oppressed Jewish populations through the ages.
Then of course there is the spiritual miracle of Hanukkah, which we commemorate by lighting a menorah for eight nights, ever bigger Hanukkiyot or menorahs as they are called. We all know this part of the story, too. When the Maccabees stormed Jerusalem and liberated the Temple, the priests could find no consecrated, pure oil to light the candelabra beyond a small amount, hidden away, and constituting about a day’s worth. As the pagan usurpers had defiled all the local supplies, the priests sent messengers to find pure oil in the countryside. It took eight whole days for one of the messengers to return and yet, a miracle occurred: That small supply of oil—enough for one day—lasted eight.
This dichotomy—of dual miracles, the military and the spiritual—always troubled my father. We celebrate the military miracle, for which we have proof, with prayer. We celebrate the spiritual miracle, which has no real historical source—but is the focus of rabbinic Hanukkah tradition going back to the Mishna—by lighting a menorah and eating latkes and jelly doughnuts. War or wicks. Death or doughnuts. Judah the Maccabee hero or ___?
And that missing name is where it all came together for my father. He believed that the true hero of Hanukkah was anonymous. Someone never mentioned, overlooked for millennia, unnoticed.
To my father, the true hero of Hanukkah was the unsung person who hid that small vial of oil. The hero is that person who, amid the desecration and turmoil prevalent in the Temple, had the foresight and faith to know that one day there would be a need to rededicate the sanctuary. This person took a risk. In my father’s mind, this hero, whom we will never know, had the presence of mind to secret away just enough to get the enterprise going again, just enough to make a difference. And it was enough.
This Hanukkah, as you light your menorah and eat your latkes and jelly doughnuts, and marvel at Judah Maccabee and the amazing scope of his military victory, hold a little place open in your heart for that brave little unknown person, who my father believed enabled us to celebrate such joyful freedoms.
And, maybe we can find the strength and conviction within ourselves to do that one little thing that just might make all the difference.