The first contrast or dissonance is found in the two fundamental sources we have of the festival. The book of the Maccabees tells the historical epic of the Maccabean resistance, the guerrilla warfare, the recovery and reopening of the Temple from the hands of the usurping Seleucids that took place between 167 and 160 BC.
"Yehudah and his brothers said: 'Our enemies have been crushed; let us go up to purify the Shrine and celebrate its dedication.
Then all the army gathered and went up to Mount Zion. When they saw the shrine desolate, the altar desecrated, the doors completely burned, the weeds growing in the courts as in a forest or on a mountain, and the halls destroyed, they tore their garments, made a great duel, covered their heads with ashes and fell to the ground. Then, at a signal given by the trumpets, they raised their cries to the sky. Judas ordered some men to fight those who were in the Citadel until the purification of the Shrine was completed. Then he chose irreproachable priests, faithful to the Law, who purified the Shrine and took the contaminated stones to an impure place?
They also repaired the Shrine and the interior of the Temple and consecrated the courts. They made new sacred objects and placed the candlestick, the altar of perfumes and the table inside the Temple. They burned incense on the altar and lit the lamps of the candlestick that began to shine in the Temple. Furthermore, they placed the loaves of bread, hung the curtains, and completed the work they had begun.
On the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, called Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, they rose at the break of day and offered a sacrifice in accordance with the Law, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had erected. It was dedicated with songs, zithers, harps, and cymbals, in the same month and on the same day that the pagans had profaned it. All the people fell down with their faces to the ground and worshiped and blessed the Heaven that had given them the victory.
For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar, joyfully offering burnt offerings and communion and thanksgiving sacrifices. They adorned the facade of the Temple with gold crowns and small shields, restored the entrances and halls, and put doors on them. Immense joy reigned throughout the people, and thus the outrage of the pagans was erased.
Judah, in agreement with his brethren and the whole assembly of Israel, determined that every year in due season and for eight days from the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the anniversary of the dedication of the altar should be celebrated with joy and gladness.
(I Maccabees 4:36-57).
In contrast to this source we read in the Babylonian Talmud: "The Gemara asks: What is Chanukah and why are the lights on Chanukah? Chamara answers: The wise men taught in Megillat Taanit: on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, the days of Chanukah are eight. One cannot make elegies and cannot fast on them.
"When the Greeks entered the sanctuary they contaminated all the oils by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a jar of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, without being bothered by the Greeks. And there was enough oil there to light the lampstand for just one day. A miracle happened and they lit the candlestick for eight days. The following year, the Wise Men instituted those days and made them a feast with the recitation of Hallel and special thanks in prayer and blessings", Shabbat 21b.
In the first place, the opening question calls our attention: "What is Chanukah and why are the Chanukah lights lit?" Is it a rhetorical question, a simple didactic resource to tell us what he wants to tell us next? Or is it a real question, from a generation to which centuries later we must explain the meaning of a tradition that it has inherited but which it did not witness? But not only the question is striking but also the answer: the story of the miracle of the oil. Where is the rebellion, the struggle, the resistance? Why does the Talmud downplay the historical episode?
Not only is the armed struggle not presented, but also the martyrology recounted in the episode of Jana and her 7 children. We can venture some possible partial answers; the Talmud, a text written in exile, is careful to encourage messages of rebellion. As a dispersed minority, self-censorship is an important mechanism, not only in relation to the ruling power but also to the very members of the people who must be protected from falling into false messianic beliefs of salvation and rebellion. Neither the episode of Bar Cojvá will be subsequently praised, nor that of the Metzada... these stories of rebellion that seem so natural to our 21st century ears were not part of the traditional Jewish discourse throughout the centuries. The armed struggle, the rebellion by force is an image recovered by the Zionist movement from the beginning, which aspires to find inspiration in these historical moments.
Another contrast: who are the Maccabees? A family of priests! Where have we seen a family whose mission is to serve God to go out to fight? Are they rebels or religious fanatics? "Whoever is with God to join me" says the war motto... how difficult it sounds to our ears today. Jewish fundamentalism or self-defense? And as if that were not enough, it will be the victorious Maccabees who will re-establish the kingdom, uniting the priestly house with the royal one. Two houses that according to our history are and should be separate powers. The priest serves God, the king the worldly power. The mixture is not necessarily positive as history will show.
Let us return then to the miracle of light. To the message that has been passed on, year after year, generation after generation. The light of Chanukah is the one that has occupied the stage throughout the centuries. The struggle is not denied, indeed, when we light the Chanukiah we say: Al Hanisim...
But the struggle is not hidden, but neither is it idealized. Combat is not an ideal. It is a necessity. Resistance is a necessity and not an ideal of life. Warmongering when necessary. Power is not the issue but freedom, especially freedom of spirit.
And one more contrast. Unlike all our festivities, this one orders us to "publicize the miracle". Why? What is so special about this fact that we have to publicize it? Why do we celebrate the miracle of the opening of the sea in the intimacy of the home with the family gathered around the table, and on Chanukah we must place the Chanukiah where everyone can see it?
A famous nursery rhyme says, banu joshej legaresh, "we come to chase away the darkness"... those little lights, which we can only use to see, have a deeply symbolic function... a little light breaks the darkness. A small act of sanity breaks the human senselessness. A little light in the darkness... is the message of resistance. To resist tyranny is to make light in the darkness.
"Chanukah is therefore for us the miracle of a light, richer than the energies that feed it. The miracle of the 'more' that comes from the 'less', an incomparable miracle. From what is exceeded, towards elevation. The Hasmonean 'resistance' is that light which has more than its own material sources. But the Talmudic text restores to a national war, a war in defence of a culture, the permanent horizon of wonder. It is the daily wonder of the spirit that precedes culture. It is a flame that burns with its own fervor: the genius that invents the previously unheard of, despite the fact that everything has already been said; the love that burns even though the loved one is not perfect; the will that commits itself to do something despite the paralyzing obstacles in its path; the hope that illuminates a life in the absence of reasons for hope..." says Levinas, and leaves us surprised to observe that light that shines in the darkness of the night.
"And God saw that it was good," not "like the question of a man who did not know the nature of something until it [existed]," says Ramban. God does not need to see the light to know it is good. It's not that the light seemed good to him after he created it, because God doesn't need that to know. It's that the light itself is good. Light is good, Tov. Rashi says, "He saw it, [and he saw] that it was not fit for the wicked to use; so he set it apart for the righteous in the future.
The light allows us to discern, see, differentiate. God differentiates between light and darkness and in doing so allows us all differentiation. When it is dark, when it is Erev, as the Rav Steinsaltz says, it is all Beirut, it is all mixed up and we cannot discern good from bad, it is not just a physical light but a spiritual light that allows us to see the truth and distinguish it from what is false. When we read the verse from Isaiah 45:7, "I form the light and create the darkness; I make peace and create evil. I am the LORD, who does all these things," which we say daily in prayer, it seems even clearer: light is parallel to peace, darkness to evil.
Shalom and not good, because Shalom, from the Hebrew word Shalem, implies completeness, that which is in completeness and harmony, which can only be achieved when there is light to discern and choose correctly. Darkness therefore is not chaos, it is not war. It is evil.
Chanukah is coming and we will begin to turn on the light, increasing it day by day, to try to bring good, peace and harmony in the world, not just in our homes. There can be no completeness if it is only something of ours, private, the message of Chanukah, the resistance of the spirit and the light that does not go out, are a message of humanity for humanity.