HANUKKAH – 5779
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi – Herald – December 2018
“Imagine your cell phone is at 6%, but it lasts for eight days. Now you understand Hanukkah.” This refers to the most well-known miracle of Hanukkah; that the small cruse of oil found in the desecrated Holy Temple – which was only enough to last for one night–lasted for eight nights, long enough for more oil to be found and pressed. It explains why we light the eight-branched candelabra known in Hebrew as a chanukiah – also described as a menorah – but it doesn’t explain why we celebrate Hanukkah to begin with. In fact, Hanukkah as a festival isn’t mentioned in the Hebrew Bible; we know about it from accounts in the two “Books of Maccabbees,” which are part of the canon of the Catholic Church.
Interestingly, neither book mentions the miracle of the oil; one account tells that Hanukkah was a delayed celebration of the harvest festival of Sukkot (which is an 8-day festival), and another that the Hasmoneans (which the Maccabee family was part of) entered the Temple with eight iron spears which they covered with wood and lit for eight days. Whether the story of the oil is true or not is beside the point; we like it, it works, and our ancient Sages preferred to glorify a miracle wrought by God as opposed to a military victory.
In Hebrew school, we were taught that the miracles of Hanukkah were “too many to count,” so I’ve never tried. However, aside from the oil lasting for the eight days, there’s the miracle of “the few against the many,” the small band of Maccabees who prevailed against the much larger and more powerful Syrian-Greek army, and a victory against assimilation. As I’ve said before, the short history of every Jewish holiday is, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
In a 2011 an article for the Huffington Post about the Miracle(s) of Hanukkah, Rabbi Laura Geller wrote, “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.”
What does this mean? Well, if the miracle of the oil is that it lasted for seven days more than expected, why do we not celebrate only seven days? Why the 8th? According to Rabbi David Hartman (of blessed memory), the miracle of the first day was that the people had the courage to take a chance and light the lamps, knowing that the oil might not last.
An old joke tells of a man who continually prays to God to win the lottery. After a few years of this, God says, “Meet me halfway, buy a ticket.” This is just what the victorious Maccabees and their followers did when they began the process of restoring the Holy Temple. They took a leap of faith and lit the lamp, meeting God halfway. The miracle happened because they made it happen.
Turn on the news, open your Facebook feed or pick up a newspaper, and the world seems like a very dark place indeed. Add that to shorter days and less sunlight, which add physical darkness to the emotional darkness we may be feeling. As the adage goes, “It is far better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” It’s human nature to curse the darkness; Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights – reminds us that light comes from within, and any light, no matter how small, illumines the world.
Like the chanukiah, each of us has lights to kindle, and each of us can add light to someone else’s darkness. Be the candle. Be the light. Be the miracle.