The Miracle(s) of Hanukkah

A story is told about a father asking his daughter what she learned in religious school. She answers excitedly: "The rabbi told us the story of how the Jews escaped from Egypt and the evil pharaoh. It was amazing. There was this giant airplane that flew down, and thousands of Jews raced on board, and it pulled away just as Pharaoh's armies were chasing it, and then all the Egyptians got in their airplanes, but the Jewish airplane shot down the Egyptian ones with UZI submachine guns, and all the Egyptians drowned in the ocean!"

"Wow! Did the rabbi really say that?" the dad asked.

"Not exactly ... but you'd never believe the story that she told!"

It is hard to believe the stories of miracles that seem so pervasive in Jewish tradition. Many of us don't take them literally. Yet Hanukkah seems to be all about celebrating a miracle. In fact, the major mitzvah (commandment) of Hanukkah is "to publicize the miracle..."

Maimonides says: "The mitzvah of lighting a Hanukkah lamp is a very well-loved mitzvah and one needs to be very careful to do it in order to proclaim the miracle and to add praise to God and gratitude for the miracles God did for us." (Laws of Hanukkah 4:7)

What is the miracle we are supposed to publicize? Actually, it depends on which source you consult. If you look at the Books of Maccabees, books that are not part of the Hebrew Bible, the miracle is the military victory of the Maccabees over the Greek-Syrian army. Why is Hanukkah eight days then? According to these Books of Maccabees, either because it is a delayed celebration of Sukkot (the harvest festival) or because the Hasmoneans entered the Temple with eight iron spears which they covered with wood and lit for eight days.

If, on the other hand, you read the Talmud, you discover: "On the twenty-fifth of Kislev commence the days of Hanukkah which are eight ... For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil in the Temple and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest, but it contained sufficient oil for only one day's lighting. Yet a miracle occurred there, and they kindled [light] for eight days because of it. The following year these days were appointed a Festival."

Why two different versions? The Books of Macabees, written closer to the time of the military victory, describe the Jewish people as independent, living under their own sovereign rule. They tell the story of a civil war between Jews who wanted to be more like the Greeks with whom they lived, and those Jews, like the Macabees, who resisted assimilation. The Macabees were ultimately the victors, winning a guerrilla war against the forces of assimilation and the Greek-Syrian army that supported them. But by the time of the Talmud, the independent state of the Jews had been destroyed and any hint of military victory would have been seditious and dangerous. For the rabbis of the Talmud, the hero was God, not the Maccabees, and Hanukkah became a spiritual victory, not a military one.

And what about for us? What is the miracle? The truth is, there are many. One is the miracle of the victory of the few against the many. To paraphrase Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Another is the miracle of the courage to be different. It is the ultimate irony and misunderstanding of Hanukkah, which is the story of a fight against assimilation, to celebrate it as just the opposite -- as a kind of Jewish Christmas complete with a "Hanukkah bush."

Finally, there is the most famous miracle of all: the little cruise of oil that burned for eight days. It is this miracle that gives rise to the lighting of the hanukiah, adding one candle for each night, until on the eighth night it is fully ablaze with light. Rabbi David Hartman offers a powerful insight into this miracle when he questions why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days. If there was enough oil to light the lamp for one day, then there is no miracle on that first day. So Hanukkah ought to be a seven day holiday. But we celebrate eight days. Clearly there must be another miracle here, which includes that first day. For Rabbi Hartman, 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.

What is the real miracle of Hanukkah? It is the miracle of human courage that empowers us to take risks for the future even in our imperfect, uncertain world. It is the courage, even in the darkest of times, to create our own light.

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