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Parashat VaYeishev 5781

December 11, 2020
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Which Hanukkah Story?
A D’var Torah for Parashat VaYeishev
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

Most of us know that there are two Hanukkah stories. The first is the one that appears in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b). This is the one we learned as children. In short, the Greeks sought to force all the Jews to abandon Judaism and adopt Greek religious culture. A small band of Jews, led by Mattityahu HaCohein and his sons, rebelled and courageously fought back against the Greek armies.

Upon their success, they entered the Temple that the Greeks had defiled. They cleaned the building and rebuilt the altar and as they were preparing to rededicate the Temple, they found that they had but one day’s worth of pure olive oil to light the menorah. They lit what they had and behold, God brought a miracle and the oil lasted not one day, but eight.

Having experienced such a miracle, a holiday of eight days was proclaimed so that the miracle would be remembered in every generation.

The second story appears in the First Book of Maccabees. In this story, the real enemy is not the Greeks, but the Hellenist Jews who were prepared to abandon Judaism, and who invited the Greek authorities to establish gymnasia and pagan altars. In this account, it is not so much a war between nations as a civil war for the soul of Judaism. The valor and the horrors of the battlefield are described in great detail as is the victorious recapture and rededication of the Temple. The Maccabees celebrated the great victory and rededication with an eight day festival, and called for this festival to recur every year so as to be remembered for generations to come.

There is just one other thing we must say about the second story – there is no mention whatsoever of a miracle in which the oil lasted for 8 days.

Many commentaries and scholarly articles attempt to analyze these stories. It may have been that in the Book of Maccabees, the eight day holiday was the result of a “better late than never” observance of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. It may be that the Talmudic rabbis wanted God to be the “hero” and not the Hasmoneans (the Maccabee family) because they violated the Torah by assuming both the office of the Priesthood and the Kingship. Moreover, by the time of the rabbis, the descendants of the Maccabees had proven themselves to be vicious tyrants who were an embarrassment to Judaism. Therefore, the story of a miracle of the eight days of oil (together with their rejection of the Book of Maccabees) might well have been the successful attempt of the rabbis to reframe the telling of the story in a way consistent with their thinking. But was the miracle merely in the imagination of the rabbis? Did it not really happen?

I would like to suggest that there is a way to understand and reconcile the stories.

The rabbis of the Talmud knew exactly how vital the Maccabees were and that without them, Judaism might have perished. And yet, they would not give Judah Maccabee and his brothers their rightful credit. They knew the Book of Maccabees, and they would not endorse a holiday that was about nothing more than a military victory. And even if they were willing to forgive the blatant disregard of Torah law (with the Priesthood and the Kingship), they were certainly not going to heap praises on a family whose children and grandchildren turned out to be completely corrupt. No – for the rabbis, Judah had to be taken off stage. This had to be all about God. God was responsible for the military success and God demonstrated a great miracle to assure that all understood God’s great role.

And what about Judah and the Book of Maccabees?

Judah and his brothers entered the desecrated Temple after a painful series of battles against the Greeks. It was a war that saw much brutality and bloodshed. (Judah’s own brother dies in battle.) Yet the courage of the Maccabees prevailed and perhaps, still in their bloodstained clothes, they restored the Temple to purity. And then they realized that they did not have enough oil to light the menorah. They came to Judah and told him. Having just demonstrated that a small group of soldiers could accomplish more than anyone imagined, he told them to light whatever oil there was.

And a miracle happened. The oil lasted for eight days. No doubt, Judah saw the hand of God. And yet, he found no comfort. On the contrary, he was furious. I imagine him looking to the heavens and saying something like this:

“God! Now You make a miracle? Now? Now? With what? – some oil?

Where were You when I NEEDED You? Where were You when your sons rose up to fight for You and Your Torah? Where were YOU when the arrows pierced the hearts of your sons and when the elephants that you created on the 6th day crushed the holy bodies of your people. Where were you when the wives of great men became widows and their children orphans? Where were YOU, God, when my brother – who loved You so much – perished. 

And NOW YOU SHOW UP? Now? To make a miracle with some oil? And that’s supposed to be the end of the story?


Get off the stage! When this story gets told in the book we are writing, it will be about the men who fought and died for Judaism. It will be the story of human courage and conviction and sacrifice. You will be between the lines. Maybe in heaven You can have nachas. But You were not here when we really needed You, and You are not going to be center stage in this chapter.”

You see, we can experience the same things, but we often spin the story according to our worldview – even our biases. The rabbis did that, and so did the Maccabees. But in the end, it is the Hanukkah story of the rabbis that directs our hearts and our observance of the holiday. While the Book of Maccabees has been preserved, it plays virtually no role in the consciousness of the Jewish people. And from this maybe we can learn something.

We demand a lot from God. Sometimes we demand with our voices and action, and just as often we make demands with our silence and inaction. Even if we can see the hand of God in our lives – sometimes, if that hand is not where we wanted it to be or when we wanted it to be, we push God, we refuse to recognize it in the story of our lives. We can try to tell the story of our lives without God. But it is only when we seek to see the hand of God rather than to control it, that God’s presence has real meaning and beauty.

Happy Hanukkah
Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.