Hanukkah reminds us that miracles are possible and that seemingly unwinnable wars can be won. But it also holds lessons about partial victories, imperfect heroes, and incomplete belonging.
We tell the story of Hanukkah, in our liturgy and in our songs and in the rituals we use to celebrate the holiday, as the decisive end of a frightening conflict: the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and the Temple is rededicated with Divine imprimatur.
But that is not the full picture of how Hanukkah was experienced in its day: alongside the joy and triumph, there was loss, uncertainty, and ongoing strife. This reality of Hanukkah as the messy middle holds lesson of perseverance for us today as we celebrate the holiday while the State of Israel fights a war which could last a long time, and whose outcome is unknown.
Celebrating painful and partial victories: Leading up to the victory of Hanukkah, Jews fought one another, heroes died, and families mourned, as battles raged on. And as the martyrdom narrative of Hannah and her seven sons describes, civilians made profound sacrifices. It is easy to envision the experiences of people waiting for loved ones to return, of everyday acts of survival and kindness, of the fear experienced by individuals, families, and communities. Even the victory of Hanukkah must have been tinged with deep loss.
What’s more, the Hanukkah victory did not end the war between the Seleucid-Greeks and the Maccabees: military campaigns continued for years thereafter. Statecraft was employed as alliances were made and broken; communities dedicated monuments to their fallen heroes, and even the great Judah the Maccabee died in battle. In short, Hanukkah did not decisively conclude the saga. Rather, it marked a crucial milestone amidst continued sacrifice and uncertainty about the future. And yet, the Jewish leadership established the holiday to hail a crucial milestone.
Read the full blog post on Times of Israel.