Q. The Maccabean victory which gave rise to Chanukah did not endure: the freedom it achieved lasted less than a century. So why should later generations regard the event as worth celebrating?
A. The sages recognised the problem when they asked the question, Mai Chanukah? – “What is Chanukah?” (Talmud Shabbat 21b). A strange question when everybody already knew the answer. But their explanation is important both for what it says and what it does not say.
They said that when the Greeks entered the Temple and defiled the oil, the Hasmoneans succeeded in finding only one cruse of undefiled oil. A miracle occurred, and the oil in the cruse burned for eight days.
What the rabbinic explanation does not say is that nationalism had triumphed, freedom had been regained and political goals had been achieved. No-one needed to tell the rabbis that these were the facts of life, but neither did anyone need to remind them that the victory was not permanent.
What the rabbis were asking was, “What is the significance of Chanukah in every set of circumstances?” And their answer was to emphasise the miraculous power of faith and hope. The Maccabees could have said, “There is not enough pure oil to rekindle the light; it is not worth trying!” What they did was to take what little they had, and to have faith that God would support their efforts. A paradigm of Jewish history: sometimes we lacked physical freedom, but our spiritual and cultural freedom were unbounded.
Today there is a new challenge. Almost every Jew in the world lives in conditions of physical freedom. We have to ensure that we do not allow our spiritual and cultural freedom to diminish because of complacency or indolence. However little we sometimes have to build on, we have to have faith that we will succeed.