Thank you so much for this opportunity to reflect with you on this season of holidays. Chanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory, so it is a particularly appropriate theme for us to consider here at Fort Huachuca. Despite its proximity to Christmas, the two holidays are unrelated.
Chanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees, a small band of Jewish zealots, against the forces of Antiochus Epiphanes, who forbade the practice of the Jewish religion. These events took place between 168-165 BCE. The word Chanukkah means “rededication,” and it commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Maccabees.
Antiochus gave himself the name- Epiphanes, meaning, God incarnate. Beware the leader who thinks he is God! The unwillingness to question one’s own strategic thinking and adjust accordingly has been the downfall of military leaders throughout the centuries. We all know that there is no “I” in “TEAM.” Rabbi Harold Kushner has said that the 4 holiest words in the English language are “I may be wrong,” and we all ought to at least be open to the possibility that another person’s perspective has merit.
As the Jewish fighters gained confidence and skill, Antiochus realized that victory was not forthcoming, his treasury was being rapidly depleted, and a negotiated resolution was preferable to an endless and expensive campaign. While technology has changed in the past 2,00 years, some things have remained remarkably consistent.
The Maccabees were sustained by their devotion to a moral cause- their right to freedom of religious expression. They were fighting for their own spiritual survival, and, were it not for their bravery, Judaism could easily have disappeared. As American Jews celebrate the holiday of Chanukkah, we are especially grateful for the free exercise of religion which is enshrined in the first amendment to our Constitution.
The rabbinic tradition, uncomfortable with the glorification of military prowess which is at the heart of our celebration of Chanukkah, shifted the emphasis to the miracle of the oil and the message of the prophet Zecharya- “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says God.
According to Jewish legend, when the Maccabees entered the Temple, they found only enough oil to light the lamp, the menorah, for one night. With no time to produce more oil, they lit the menorah anyway, and, miraculously, that little jar of oil lasted for 8 days- hence, 8 days of Chanukkah.
Commentators raise the question, though- what was the miracle on the first day of the holiday? There was enough oil for one day, it lasted one day, so- no miracle. Therefore, shouldn’t we really observe only 7 days of Chanukkah? Like good commentators, they answer their own question. The miracle of the first day was that- knowing there were no resources forthcoming, no reinforcements, no re-supply on the way, no continuing resolution from congress, no end to sequester, yet, they lit the lights anyway.
And what an important message for each of us. We have all been there- overwhelmed, feeling hopeless, no idea how we will go on. How do we respond to another furlough? Another shutdown? Yet somehow we draw on a deep well of inner strength and move forward. Chanukkah taught the Jewish people that as long as even one little, tiny spark is burning, that spark can become a great light. Sometimes the miracle is not winning or achieving but daring to try. A sign in a girls’ high school says, IT ISN’T OVER WHEN YOU LOSE. IT’S OVER WHEN YOU QUIT. Chanukkah has rightly been called the holiday of “holy chutzpah.” Even your own Commanding General, BG Pete Gallagher’s motto is: “find a way!”
Another perspective on miracles- Were we to have walked into the Temple at any time during the eight days on which the oil was burning, we would not have noticed that a miracle was underway. There was no herald of the miracle, no sign. All would have looked normal to us, the visitors, on one of those days. It would have been only with the knowledge that the oil had burned yesterday and the day before and the day before that, that the miracle would have become evident. So it is with the world around us: Miracles are happening every day, at every moment. It is our job to take notice, to stop and appreciate the extraordinary nature of the world we live in.
“Swords into plowshares”- such is the vision of the Messianic age of peace for which we hope and pray and work. Until that longed for time arrives, we celebrate Chanukkah, honoring the bravery of those who risk and, indeed, too often, sacrifice their lives, in support of our freedom, then and now.
That is the miracle, now – men and women, civilians and military personnel of this generation, who risk and sacrifice in support of freedom, who continue to serve with no miraculous resources in sight, who pray for peace and prepare for battle, and who support that quintessential American value of freedom of religious expression for all citizens of this great country.
CH (COL) Bonnie Koppell