This week Jews all over the world celebrate the Festival of Lights, also known as Hanukkah.
This is one of the most celebrated of Jewish holidays and certainly one of the most famous. Yet Hanukkah’s history is somewhat checkered. In fact, it seems that there was a time when the ancient rabbis were conflicted about celebrating Hanukkah.
The Talmud, written about 1600 years ago, seems confused about the reasons for celebrating Hanukkah when it asks (Shabbat 21b), “What is Hanukkah?” This is a strange question, especially when the reason for celebrating Hanukkah is mentioned clearly in the daily prayers said during the festival.
The answer it gives is equally telling. According to the Talmud, the sole reason we celebrate Hanukkah is because after the Maccabees were successful in restoring the Temple in Jerusalem, they only found one jug of ritually pure oil to light the Temple’s candelabra. But that one jug miraculously lasted for eight days.
The Talmud does not, however, see the victory of the small Maccabean army over the mighty Syrian-Greeks as a reason for celebration. This contrasts starkly with the daily prayer that focuses exclusively on the winning of the war by the small and weak Maccabean army.
It is telling that the prayer was formulated at the latest in the second century CE (possibly long before), whilst the Talmudic question was asked at least a few hundred years later. It, thus, seems to me that the rabbis of the fourth and fifth centuries had difficulties celebrating a Maccabean victory given that the Maccabees ended up being tyrannical rulers and fierce adversaries of the rabbis.
Given its faulty premise, why then didn’t the rabbis abolish Hanukkah completely? Other holidays and fasts have been allowed, over the centuries, to fade into virtual obscurity. In the case of Hanukkah, however, the rabbis not only did not abolish it, they reinvigorated in and recast it as a celebration of a different, albeit, more spiritual miracle.
Herein lies a most important lesson. Hindsight is always 20/20. However, when we make decisions at the outset, we don’t have the benefit of knowing what the outcome will be. We never have all the facts when decisions need to be made. Because of this, there are times when we make mistakes. This is simply a function of being human.
It is how we deal with our mistake that makes all the difference. Basing the festival of Hanukkah on a military victory by a group of priestly zealots turned out to be a mistake. But instead of abolishing this beautiful and meaningful festival, the rabbis made a distinction between the faulty premise and the outcome. The Festival of Lights, was, has been and continues to be a beautiful and an inspirational Jewish holiday.
At times, people become disillusioned with the rational they were given for religion. Because they no longer ascribe to the previous rational for their practices, they often became disenchanted with religion entirely.
People do this with their marriages as well. Feelings can change and morph, people grow differently and the original rational for getting married can disappear. Similar issues arise in many other areas of life, career and business. The way the rabbis dealt with Hanukkah is instructive here.
Clearly, just because the basis for some of our decisions may have been wrong or no longer exists does not mean that the outcome is wrong and therefore must be dialed back completely. As the saying goes, “The baby need not be thrown out with the bathwater.” Often the basis for a decision may be wrong but the decision itself has merit.
Thus, before we make major changes in life we must first consider what may have been correct about our previous decisions and actions. We can then, in hindsight, base the outcome upon a newer, more sophisticated and better decision – just like the rabbis did with Hanukkah.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions
, a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life