Much ink (including mine, last summer) has been spilled noting that Hanukkah has not been as early in the solar year as it is this year for 125 years. The articles stating that Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving again in 70,000-some years assume that the growing error between the Jewish year and the solar year will never be corrected. Were that to be the case, in 35,000 years we would be celebrating Rosh Hashanah in April and Passover in September. The problem is that the Jewish year is corrected to match the Julian year. We follow the Gregorian calendar, which corrected a very slight error in the length of the year. At some point, when Passover is projected to fall too late in the Spring, the calendar will be corrected so the celebration of Thanksgivakkah or Hodunakkah may very well happen again, although not necessarily in our lifetime.
I bless the LORD who has guided me … (16:7)
The Hanukkah story is an example of how we use a religious myth – the myth that God’s guiding hand can be seen in history.
The first sentence was deliberately provocative, in that it used the word ‘myth’ in a way that is likely to be misunderstood to mean ‘a made up story, one that is not true.’ In fact, a myth may or may not be a historically true story, but it is definitely a true story in that it teaches significant truth. The most accurate definition of ‘myth’ is a narrative that provides a meaningful framework for our lives. The Exodus story is the backbone of the Torah. The principles derived from the experience of the transition from slavery to Mount Sinai, such as the obligation to take care of the weak and vulnerable in our society, are the most important principles of the Torah. Tzedakah and Shabbat, for example, are explicitly linked to the Exodus.
The way we tell the Hanukkah story reinforces the idea that our successes, our victories, are directly linked to acting on our faith in God.
An objective telling of the Hanukkah story might focus on military acumen, the wisdom of fighting a guerrilla war against the Syrian army rather than confronting them in the conventional face to face battle. The Syrians, fighting on behalf of Greek values, were a powerful army, but not particularly committed to the ideology for which they were fighting. They could be worn down over time, and that’s what the Mattathias and his five sons did.
The theological story of Hanukkah emphasizes the victory of the few against the many, the weak against the powerful, an event that could only have happened with God’s intervention. This story is the one told by the al ha-nissim prayer, inserted into the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon on Hanukkah.
An even more extreme story is told by the Talmud to explain the 9 branched Hanukkah menorah. The 8 day celebration of Hanukkah, we are told, is only indirectly connected to the Maccabee’s victory. Rather, we are celebrating the miracle that the last vial of consecrated oil, uncontaminated by Syrian idolatrous hands, burned for 8 days, until new oil could be pressed.
The dreydel, with its four letters representing “A Great Miracle Happened There,” is ambiguous. Which miracle are we talking about – the military victory, the oil, or both? It doesn’t really matter – both stories illustrate “I bless the LORD who has guided me …”, seeing the hand of Divine providence in the critical events of our history.