Why We Celebrate Hanukkah with Light
Why do we commemorate Hanukkah with the oil when the miracle of winning the war seems so much greater?
It may be hard to imagine what Israeli-born Michal Oshman, a top executive at TikTok UK, has in common with the small group of Maccabees we know so well from Chanukah.
When Michal Oshman, a top executive at TikTok UK, was 18, she left home to serve in the Israeli army. Overnight she went from an innocent young girl to a soldier in basic training, which included carrying a loaded gun at all times, sleeping in the wilderness, and enduring physical drills in extreme weather conditions. Despite their exhaustion, every morning the soldiers’ living quarters had to be spotless. If the commanding officer determined that it wasn't pristine, no one was allowed to go home for their free weekend.
One morning, the toilet had a blockage, making it impossible to clean. Each girl refused to empty out the toilet, adamant that someone else had to do it. As the minutes ticked by, Michal looked around the room and realized that no one was going to step up. Without hesitating, she walked straight into the bathroom, stuck her hand into the toilet, and pulled out the offensive obstruction.
She heard the girls cheering behind her, then turned around and found herself face to face with her commanding officer. Michal shrunk in fear, assuming she'd be reprimanded that the rest of the bathroom was filthy. Instead, the officer looked her in the eye and said, “Yup, you’re one of us.”
Michal was promoted to commanding officer that day because she was willing to do what no one else would.
Michal shares this moment as a metaphor for how she became so successful at TikTok. It also explains how the Hanukkah story began. A small group of Hasmoneans had their own moment of stepping up to the plate that eventually led them to defeating the immeasurably stronger Greek army. The Jewish nation was being physically and spiritually destroyed by the Syrian-Greeks, and the freedom to practice Judaism was being threatened. This small band of young men took decisive action when no one else would and took on one of the most powerful military forces in the world and miraculously won.
Compare this incredible military victory to Hanukkah’s second miracle. After the crushing military defeat, the Hasmoneans found a pure flask of pure oil in the Temple that burned for eight days.
Now if it were up to you, which symbol would you pick to best represent the Hanukkah miracle: a sword for winning the war, or a flame for the oil burning eight days? Why do we commemorate Hanukkah with the oil when the miracle of the war seems so much greater?
The following story* sheds some light.
At 16 years old, Rivka Schachter weighed a mere 40 pounds when she was sent to Bergen Belson during the Holocaust. She was put to work in a battalion where each day she had to carry huge boulders up and down a mountain. Deprived of food and water, the prisoners were killed if they fell, tripped, or dropped their boulder.
One morning, Rivka was unable to move from the truck. A young, frail woman nearby yelled to her, “Get off the truck! If you don’t move, they're going to kill you. Let’s go!”
“I can’t move," Rivka said. "I'm done. Let them kill me here.”
The young woman replied, “Then I’ll carry you up the mountain.”
“You can’t carry me and the boulder! You’ll die also.”
“Then I’ll die for a purpose.”
This young stranger made her way up the mountain, carrying the boulder in one arm and Rivka in the other.
Two generations later, Rivka came face to face with her savior, Mrs. Sarah Traut, when their grandchildren married each other in a moment of great serendipity. Mrs. Traut’s moment of light dispelled some of the darkness, lighting the way for future generations.
Why light? Because a candle’s flame will always rise upward no matter which direction you hold it.
A sword wasn't chosen because the true hero of the story wasn't our physical strength, it was our spiritual light. It was our soul that gave the Maccabees the passion and drive to fight for their people. It was that spark that led Michal Oshman to stand up and do the job that no one else would. It was Sarah Traut’s inner fire and steadfast refusal to give up that enabled her to carry a fellow Jew up the mountain in spite of her own limitations.
Why light? Because a candle’s flame will always rise upward no matter which direction you hold it. That light that refuses to be put down; it will always rise up even in the most difficult of circumstances. A flame will not succumb. A flame does not give up.
We relive the Hanukkah miracle every time we are surrounded by darkness but decide to choose light.
*As heard from Rabbi Fischel Shachter
A version of this article appeared in The Jewish Home.