The holiday of Chanukah…or Hanukah, as it is sometimes spelled in English (because the English do not have the sound of the first letter of the word in this language), is a holiday that celebrates a miracle. And though we are told the story of the miracle, there are many who continued to ask… what miracle?
I have to tell you, my friends, that I am not fond of miracles… and don’t like to hear stories about miracles… Why?, you ask. Maybe I don’t believe in miracles? No, it isn’t that. In fact, I have seen miracles with my own eyes. I know there are such things, and I know they happen. But there is something about them, from every which way that you might look at them, that disturbs me… and I used to tell my children and my students, ‘don’t tell me about miracles… and don’t tell me about miracle rabbis’. Yes, for those of you who don’t know… there are some rabbis who are known primarily for their ability to bring about miracles…
In Hebrew, a miracle is called a ‘flag’. It is because it works something like a flag. We look at the world, and we see what we expect to see. Everything is normal. And then, all of a sudden, we see a flag. A flag that reminds us that there are things beyond what we see. There is also a supernatural reality. And that is the miracle. For me, the more I look at life, the more amazing and wonderful it is… beyond what I can understand by far. And so, the educational aspect of the miracle is unnecessary for me. And what’s more, I believe that if we live a life of common sense, and according to the values we’ve been taught… we don’t need miracles. And when we do, if we do… it is usually because of some terrible disaster. And I don’t like to hear about disasters.
The common understanding of the miracle of Hanukah is that there was only one jar of oil for the constant candle, which used to burn 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the holy temple. This oil was special. It was made from the first squeeze of ripe olives, and it took a week to prepare such oil, and so it was considered a miracle that the lamp kept burning for eight days until more oil was prepared for this lamp. So why is it, that the priests who found this single jar of oil, didn’t wait until they had a full supply to keep the lamp lit. This is a lesson in how to relate to a situation in which one can realize the sanctity of a situation, but not everything is the way it should be. It reminds us of Nachshon, at the Red Sea, with the Egyptians chasing after us. There were those who were frightened. Not just by the Egyptian soldiers chasing us, but by the fact that there was no way to turn. Nachshon kept going… right into the sea… and the waters receded, leaving dry land for the rest of us to cross. So what we learn, is that when we have some way to do something that is really important for us, existentially, we should go ahead, and not worry whether it is the perfect way to do what we desire.
But there are many different approaches to the miracle of Hanukah. Some teachers say that the miracle was in the fact that the Jews fought at all. Because anyone who knows the Jews well, knows that we are a peace loving people and don’t like to fight. It is only when we are pressed to the wall, and we have no other possibility, that we actually choose to fight. At times, it is aggravating. Because our reluctance to fight makes our enemies bolder, and they provoke us again and again… wanting to have a rumble. So some say it was a miracle we fought at all. Even when the Greeks had taken over our country, and had appointed their friends to govern, and paraded around with elephants (which were the equivalent of tanks in our eyes)… It was only when they insisted on sacrificing a pig in the holy temple, which was an abomination for us, that we rose up, under the leadership of the priests, and fought.
There is much I could tell you about this unusual holiday. For the essence of it is our relationship to the holy temple. But I will close with my best wishes to all my friends, and remind you, as I remind my grandchildren, that a candle loses nothing by giving of it’s fire to another candle… and that each candle joins the light in pushing back the darkness… and here are some more pictures of visits from my grandchildren on this happy Hanukah.