“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
— G.K. Chesterton
I picked up this picture and quote from my friend Aaron, who runs at OpenSource Judaism (click over there and say ‘hi’. Also congratulate him on his new baby.). It reminded me of a similar quote from my friend and teacher Naomi Chase.
She was talking about Chanukah, and the various narratives around it. Being a stuck up know-it-all at the beginning of what was to be a long (and ongoing) Jewish learning experience, I wanted my Chanukah information unvarnished and honest. No more baby stories about oil. I knew better.
- The holiday is 8 days because the last holiday the Hasmoneans (ie: Maccabees) missed was Sukkot. So upon re-dedicating the Temple, they gave a nod to that festival and added an additional day at the end to commemorate their victory.
- The oil story was added later, by Rabbis who were uncomfortable with the reality of Jew-on-Jew violence that the Chanukah story contains.
- The whole holiday was a mere footnote on the calendar until about 150 years ago, when a certain other gift-giving seasonal event became prominent, and some people felt the need to compete.
Naomi listened to my dissertation, nodding in understanding. I was proud that I had learned the grown-up version of the holiday. I didn’t need any babyish…
“What about the miracle?” she asked.
I was at a loss. I had just explained that the miracle story about the oil was added later.
“Yes,” she continued. “But as much as some scholars – ancient or modern – might have been prone to either equivocation or exaggeration, they weren’t in the habit of publicly pronouncing a miracle from God where there was none.” she stated. “If our liturgy talks about miracles as explicitly as it does, then it is incumbent on us – even though we *are* adults and not babies – to determine why they would add that language. The Jews have won a lot of military conflicts through the years, and none of the rest of them have this kind of attention. So I’m asking again: What about the miracle? Al Ha-Nissim and all that, ‘We thank you for the miracles’. What miracle are they talking about?”
Deflated and defeated (but now curious as well), my meager supply of Jewish knowledge used up, I replied “I got nuthin.”
And that’s when she laid it on me. The quote that matches Mr. Chesterton’s above:
“The miracle we find in the story of Chanukah isn’t whether oil lasted for one day, or three, or eight.
It’s that, after all they had been through and all they knew could befall them in the coming weeks and years,
the people still chose to light the menorah in the first place.”
I’ve since connected with the idea that this is the reason we light the candles each year. Not because we are re-enacting the first oil crisis to hit the middle east. No, we are recreating the act that mattered:
The Jewish people: some alienated from their own faith by years of assimilation, others polarized into fanaticism in an effort survive when other groups had been consumed, and still others trying to reconcile where they stand day by day, moment by moment. Both groups healing from hurts (real or perceived) inflicted on them by the other – those people still felt it was worthwhile to clean up their holiest space, to set things right again, and to observe an ancient practice not because they were obsessively holding onto the past, not because they were fearful of anything new, but because they believed it was an essential part of who they were.
More importantly, they believed it was important to express – visibly and publicly – that belief in who they were.
I recognize that many things are the same today as it was then. In the spectrum of the Jewish people, some of us have assimilated, some have clung to tradition, some are in motion between those two points. All of us have an emotional stake in where we are and where we want to be. In our varying views we haven’t always been gracious or supportive or even polite to the other. Hurts – real or perceived – remain unhealed. The Holy Temple – our spiritual center-point that exists today in our heart rather than any fixed place on the planet – still needs to be put back in order.
But this year most of us (even those who have lost hold of any of our other traditions) will stand again in front of our Chanukiah – a reflection of the Temple’s menorah during that initial moment of dedication after destruction. If we reading carefully, the abrupt shift in tense – from past to present – will not be lost on us.
“And [we thank You] for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time“