Jewish tradition, in a number of places, wrestles with which element of Hannukah to emphasize. Was it the military victory of a small guerrilla force over a much larger and battle-hardened enemy, or the miracle of one small jug of oil that should have been enough for one day, but lasted for eight. Historically, there is more evidence for the military success, which was miraculous on its own accord, but the little jug of oil which appears in the Talmud, Shabbat 21a-b, is a more enchanting narrative that feeds the minds of children, adults, and soldiers alike.
Having completed my first five weeks of service, with the most recent week coinciding with the arrival of the first days of Hannukah, I am increasingly inclined to believe in the unfathomable military victory. In order to be successful, so many of the proverbial chips must fall correctly. From training to the battle itself, there are logistical challenges that must be overcome, the movement of personnel and equipment, fueling soldiers’ stomachs as well as their vehicles. Terrain and weather are uncontrollable variables. Maintaining a high degree of readiness while not exhausting the physical resources or mental capacities of soldiers may also be a key to eventual victory. Sometimes, as in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a tactical mistake by the enemy turns the tide. They are not to be relied upon, but when they occur, generals must have the forethought to exploit their benefits. So while the Talmud’s account of a small jug of oil conjures up all sorts of impressive imagery, I am not necessarily willing to dismiss or diminish the Maccabees’ military feats.
On our base last Wednesday, as the sun was approaching the horizon, groups of soldiers, four, six, or eight at a time, ceased their various tasks and found their way to one of our central meeting areas. Awaiting them there were hannukiot, candles, and plastic plates topped with sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). One-by-one the soldiers lit candles, reciting the blessings either from memory or with the help of friends. Once every soldier present had kindled the lights, song and dance erupted. Popular Hannukah songs were eventually replaced with songs of Israel and Zion. The loud male voices echoed across the desert hills, and for those few minutes we were transformed from soldiers who are entrusted with defending the land militarily, to children celebrating light, life and that small jug of oil. Perhaps the two stories can coincide after all.
חג אורים שמח