Excerpts from my Military Journal 29/11/02
“Two years ago I celebrated my first Hanukkah in the army. I had just finished my advanced training and had been transferred to a new company on the Lebanese border. I remember thinking as I lit that first candle, that now that my training was over the rest of my service would be quite easy. How the army now was going to be everything i romanticized it to be.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Two weeks later my Captain, Liron Yogev was killed, not long after that another of my friends. Before I knew it, I was transferred to Jenin where my unit witnessed more hatred and death than one could ever imagine.
Last week I celebrated my last Hanukah in the army. Once again I was on the Lebanese border, only this time, I was a staff sergeant with only two more months of service. As we lit that first candle, I couldn’t help but think back to that first night two years back and everything that had happened since. I recalled all that was going through my mind, the thoughts, the feelings and how my military experiences forced them to grow and change. It was then that i realized that i was celebrating Hanukkah in a whole new light, a light that took three long years of military service to understand, but that really had been with me all along.
Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights
We all know that Hanukkah is the festival of lights, yet our sages do not take this for granted and immediately ask the ultimate Jewish question — “why?”
“Why lights?” “Why candles?”
The answer given to us in the Talmud [Sabbath 21:A] is the well known story of the purification of the temple, told to us so many times when we were children.
‘When Judah the Maccabi came to purify the temple he found a little jug of oil that should have lasted for barely a day and ended up lasting him eight days and nights. Due to this great miracle we celebrate Hanukkah.’
While this is a nice childrens story, there was something about it that I previously could never really understand. Why did the Talmud feel the need to tell us some Bubbamiser about some jug of oil, when an even greater miracle ACTUALLY occurred?
In the year 167 B.C.E — Judah the Maccabi with a small poorly trained, unequipped army some how managed in a series of 8 battles to defeat one to the most powerful armies of that era. Highlighted in the context of our history, shouldn’t that have been a great enough miracle to celebrate? Why make up a miracle when one already exists?
Furthermore, when one considers the exile and persecution that we have suffered for the last 2000 years, one has to feel quite perplexed that our sages did not have us celebrate this one amazing victory of ours. It’s absence from the Talmudic narrative begs us to ask why?
The Rabbis should have had us marching with swords, reenacting the great battles of the Maccabees and their miraculous victories. Instead here we are, lighting candles as if this is a day of mourning.
In contrast to this story, there is another Braita in the Jerusalemite Talmud that tells of a custom that the children of Jerusalem would practice that involved walking around with wooden swords during the fast day of the Ninth day of Av and then stick these swords in the grounds of a cemetery after Mincha.
Swords on our day of mourning..? candles on our day of victory…?
What were our Rabbis thinking!?
It was while lighting that candle after two difficult years in the army that I finally understood why. Why celebrate a fable instead of history, why candles and not swords.
I believe it is because our sages realized back then what many of us fail to realize even today;
So long as we live by the sword, our legacy will only include days like the 9th of Av. It’s only when we live by the light of divine spirituality and peace that we experience real victory.
It is this message that god gives us through the prophet Zechariah at the end of the Haftarah for Hanukkah. In Zechariah’s vision, which would become in later years the symbol of the state of Israel, he sees a Menorah. God depicts the meaning of this vision in Zechariah’s famous words of peace — “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit saith the lord thy god”
May this prophecy of old be a blessing of new, so that we may all celebrate in the light of peace.”