Among the ideas I presented as the Scholar-in-Residence at Agudath Israel in Ottawa last month, was the importance of hopefulness in Judaism. One example I did not offer – but could have – relates directly to the celebration of Hanukkah. The well-known and oft-cited Talmudic story (Shabbat 21b) mentions how, upon re-entering the defiled Jerusalem Temple, the only suitable oil to be found with which to light the menorah was one small jar secured with the seal of the high priest. There was only enough oil to last for one day. Yet the oil – miraculously – lasted for eight days. And according to the Talmud, this miracle was the reason for the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah.
While some authorities have called into question the connection between the miracle of oil and the length of the celebration (sixteenth century Rabbi Joseph Karo, for example, points out that with enough oil in the jar to last one day, the miracle lasted only seven days and, accordingly, it would seem that Hanukkah should be celebrated for seven days, not eight), few – if any – have considered an equally interesting question, namely, why was any oil secretly hidden in the first place?
It was a time of intense persecution. The anti-Jewish laws promulgated by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes were pervasive. The likelihood that would change any time soon was remote. The king was a megalomaniacal tyrant who had the means to enforce his rule and his whims. As well, he enjoyed the support of a considerable number of Hellenist Jews who applauded his attempts to compel acceptance of Greek culture. Further, the early rebels were at a severe disadvantage. According to the First Book of Maccabees (Chapter 7), the Jewish rebels refused to fight on the Holy Sabbath Day making them easy victims to their attackers who planned their assaults on Shabbat. Yet despite all this, in the Temple about to be co-opted for pagan rites, there was some anonymous priest who believed that things were going to change for the better. He had hope. And it was that hope that – literally – fueled the celebration of Hanukkah.
To that anonymous priest hope was not some ethereal concept, devoid of any relationship to reality. Hope was connected with action. It was not enough to wish things were different but to prepare for when things would be different. That hope was rewarded.
Those who today question whether there may ever be peace in Israel or whether an agreement may ever be negotiated between Israel and her hostile neighbors (and under the reprobation of much of the world) this lesson needs to be acknowledged. As a people we live with hope. There is no other way.