Tag Archives: Hannukah

A Very Army Hannukah

30 Nov
Last night of Hannukah

Last night of Hannukah (Photo credit: Len Radin)

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

Miracle Dispersion

15 Dec

Hanukkah (Photo credit: Itzike)

Having just kindled the final light of Hannukah, I wanted to put to writing a thought that I was fortunate to have the opportunity to share earlier in the week of Hannukah at the home of my gemara rebbe in Alon Shvut.

Year after year at this time we gather around platters of steaming latkes, jelly doughnuts, specialty or standard, home-made applesauce, and mounds of gelt, amid the aromas of countless varieties of “secret” heirloom recipes for those foods. Somewhere during the festive evening a hannukiah or two or dozen are illuminated, whether with oil or candles and two blessings are sung, chanted, or mumbled.

The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, records a discussion about the aforementioned blessings, and the appropriate wording. Of the two blessings that are applicable to all eight glorious nights, it is the latter of the couplet that carries, for me, the most intrigue. The concluding words are “She’asa nisim l’avoteinu bayamim hahem, b’zman hazeh,” who performed miracles for our ancestors (fathers) in those days, at this time. However with a slight variance in the words, we have the capability to make an entirely different blessing, an entirely different statement. By adding the Hebrew letter “vav,” causing the blessing to read “u’bizman hazeh,” a greater theological claim has been staked. A commentator known as the L’vush did in fact use this version of the blessing. That little “vav,” the most simple and upright of all the Hebrew characters, what exactly does it do in the context of the blessing over lights which are dedicated to the commemorating of an ancient miracle?

The joyous songs of Hannukah, the stories that are dramatically recounted, and the additions to t’fillah all are certain to illuminate the multi-faceted nature of Hannukah, be it a dramatic military victory, a small jug of oil, or the return of Jewish sovereignty. Regardless of which miraculous event is viewed as most central and significant, the simple fact is that none of them take into account modern miracles. Miraculous occurrences in our contemporary lives have the potential to be so minute and fleeting that they go unnoticed and unrecognized, and yet they are the bearers of significant responsibility in the lives of those they impact, just as the appearance of that little “vav” impacts the meaning of a blessing. Inclusion of that ‘vav’ into the lighting of the Hannukah lights disperses the gratitude for the miracles that are constantly unfolding.

Furthermore, Hannukah’s location on the calendar, at the time of year with the least daylight (in the Northern Hemisphere), provides the backdrop for the light of the hannukiah to spread outwards into the darkness. Mirroring the glowing flames of the hannukiah should be our ability to realize that miracles are diffused throughout the year, with Hannukah serving as a reminder of their existence, a reminder that the smallest moment could be the “vav” that creates a miracle in our lives and alters our journey, just as it alters the theological underpinnings of the Hannukah blessings.