AS HANUKKAH APPROACHES, families take out their hanukkiahs, buy candles, since they often can’t find the ones from last year, and get ready for the less than healthy diet of potato latkes and jelly donuts. Ah, but it is only once a year that we celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah. But just what is that miracle?
According to the Book of Maccabees, Hanukkah marks the military victory of the Maccabees, a small band of Jews, who triumphed over mightier forces to re-consecrate the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the Assyrians. So is that the miracle? After all, we don’t have many of those kinds of victories in our history.
And then there is the “miracle of the oil.” Hundreds of years after the actual event, the Talmud tells us that when the Temple was re-consecrated, there was only enough oil to keep the “Eternal Light” glowing for a single night. Yet by a miracle, the light burned eight days. Now at that time the Israelites lived under Roman rule and any reference to a military victory would have garnered severe repercussions. Better to celebrate a miracle than celebrate a military victory. So if we eliminate that possibility, is there still a miracle of Hanukkah?
Yes Virginia there is a miracle. Rabbi Laura Geller writes that “the miracle wasn’t that the oil lasted an additional seven days, but rather that those ancestors lit the first wick at all, without being certain that the light would last long enough to complete to the rededication of the Temple. The miracle was that they took the chance, a risk, a leap of faith. They took the first step even though they were not sure they had enough resources to succeed.”
The real miracle of Hanukkah is also not that the oil lasted eight days, but that the celebration has lasted thousands of years. The story of the Jewish people is in itself a miracle–of a people flourishing against amazing odds. Consider the civilizations that lived thousands of years ago–contemporaries of the Israelites – the Hittites, the Perrizites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Canaanites – all greater in number and military power. Where are they today? Yet a small band of nomads, the children of Israel survived and flourished.
It’s not easy being Jewish. Even today during the “holiday” season, there are no Hanukkah Specials on television or Hanukkah music playing on the radio for 24 hours. But during this season, this festival of lights, let us remember that the story of the Jewish people is a story of light flourishing in darkness and that the real miracle of Hanukkah is that we still light the candles and, as a people, continue to strive to bring light into the world.”
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.