The Miracle of Hanukkah, Yesterday and Today

A Jewish man prays in front Menorah candles on the first night of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City December 21, 2008. Hanukkah, which means "dedication", and is also referred to as "The Festival of Lights", commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by foreign forces. (JERUSALEM) | (Photo: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

To be Jewish is "to believe in miracles," Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, president of the North American Board of Rabbis, commented to me in a recent conversation.

We celebrate with Hanukkah the miracle of one vial of oil lasting eight days after the Greeks in ancient days defiled the remaining oil in the Temple when they ruled Judea. Is that the only miracle that we should celebrate today when we observe the eight days of Hanukkah, or is there more? I say there is much more, and it will bring us closer to the living nature of the celebration.

My viewpoint does portray my optimism, that miracles are with us in so many ways in our lives. The holiday of Hanukkah is more than the celebration of one miracle from 2,000 years ago; rather it is a celebration, during the eight days, of the continuous range of miracles of our Jewish people that have happened even up until today. In the lighting of the candles, we see the reminder of the light in the world that sweeps away the darkness.

As we spin the dreidel, we watch the letters, nun, gimel, hay and shin, on each side pass us by, standing for "Nes gadol hayah sham," translated as "A great miracle happened there."

This is what living in God's world means to me. And for many of our ancestors who were persecuted, those letters, or substitute ones they used on the side of their dreidel, provided an opportunity for protection, for renewed light, and for the continuity of the Jewish faith.

The story as we know it, in the simplest version, is that the Maccabean Jews regained control of Jerusalem from the Greeks in 165 BCE, and rededicated the Temple. The Greeks wanted idols in the Temple, an altar to Zeus, among other things, and Judah Maccabee would not accept that.

He led a revolt, the Temple was liberated and tradition was to be restored. The Jewish people needed to light the eternal light, and only one vial of oil could be found, and yet they needed eight days' worth — and the miracle occurred that the oil burned for the eight days.

It was a year later that the holiday of Hanukkah was established and celebrated for eight days, a celebration of the weak imperiled by annihilation overcoming the mighty, with God's intervention. Clearly, Hanukkah is a time of searching for a path to holiness, to opening our hearts, educating ourselves, and looking to the spirit within ourselves, and the opportunity of a spiritual renewal as we look to the miracle that happened, and that we are celebrating.

Was the miracle in the taking back of Jerusalem and the Temple, or the oil burning for the eight days? There are many different interpretations of this, some limiting the miracle to the oil burning eight days when there was only a supply for one day, and others including the retaking of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Rashi's interpretation in the Talmud sees the miracle only in the oil lasting for eight days, as that could only have been in the hands of God, and could only have happened with the intervention of God. Other rabbis see the miracle happening in the very moment that the Maccabeans suspended doubt, in their commitment to liberating Jerusalem and the Temple, against all odds. Their faith was strengthened, and so they took action. Although their action was earthly based, God was with them, and they succeeded.

Hillel proposed lighting one candle the first night and adding one each day up to eight the last night, as he saw that the light would be growing during the celebration of the Hanukkah festival. We follow that today. Light is always welcomed in the dark, and the more faith you have, the more and brighter is the light as the dark recedes. That is the Jewish optimism that shines, and the continued belief in a God that we serve on Earth as a Jewish people. That's my viewpoint.

I look at today's miracles, starting with the rebirth of the State of Israel, including our eternal capital Jerusalem, as one of the true miracles of our time, and cannot imagine that we do not include that in the wonder of our celebration of the eight days of Hanukkah. It was the commitment of the Jewish people that never gave up, and I call it a miracle. Against all odds, against a mighty enemy, the Jews won the initial victories necessary to establish the State in 1948.

There were multiple wars later, among them the war in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Lebanon War, the wars in Gaza, all defending the State of Israel against attacks by its neighbors. All miracles. And Israel has built a country with a strong economy, a strong, diverse people, with a wealth of talent in the arts, science, design and you name it. Yes, a miracle.

I see the return to Judea and Samaria as a modern-day miracle; we are able to again walk upon the land of our ancestors, of King David, of Sarah and all our great biblical ancestors, and once again be in the capitals of our original kingdom in Hebron and Shiloh. Yes, to me a miracle, and we should observe it for what it is in our history and for its spiritual significance to our people.

With continued optimism and conviction, the State of Israel continues as the home of the Jewish people. It also continues as a nation that is bringing light unto the world in a neighborhood of darkness and turmoil. We sometimes need to be reminded of that, and that's the story of Hanukkah in the lighting of the candles for eight days.

In today's world, there is another miracle, and that is the story of the Jewish people in America, and we need to recognize it. In a land of freedom, the Jewish community has thrived, creating one of the greatest civilizations in the 5,000 year history of our Jewish people. And we Jews in America have lived and worked shoulder to shoulder with people of every background and conviction. The extraordinary breakthroughs and leadership that we have created for our own people and for others have brought true light upon our people. And even after the great loss of the Holocaust, we have Jews in Diaspora throughout the world, living full lives and contributing immensely to the world.

These are a few current particulars within the bigger picture. We must open our eyes and hearts, and strengthen our souls, by seeing the miracles in even the small things around us, the daily common occurrences that we too often take for granted, and I must say many of which we now start seeing on Facebook as people are identifying those miraculous moments in their daily lives as they experience them. The sunrises, the children in their lives and the changes as they grow up, the relationships we have with other people who enter into our lives in sometimes inexplicable ways.

The story of Judah Maccabee started the celebration of Hanukkah, the recognition of miracles and the light that God has given to us, and it did not just stop there. Miracles continued in our history for more than 2,000 years now, which clearly I will not enumerate, although I am suggesting we be most conscious of them during the Hanukkah season. Hanukkah to me is also recognition of the earlier great historic moments in Torah when God was with us.

So, let's expand the significance of Hanukkah. Let it be a true celebration of and for our Jewish people. Let it restore a greater understanding for young people that miracles are not just part of our past, rather an ever-present part of today, and our future. When the candles are lit, let the children understand our Jewish commitment to light, particularly in a world of significant darkness these days.

It is quite interesting — and I just learned this — that it is traditional during Hanukkah that there should be no mourning and no fasting. The concentration is on miracles, and celebrating the light. Let us see during Hanukkah, each of us, that we can make the Hanukkah light our own inner light. Let us go beyond ourselves, and treat other people from the perspective of light and not darkness, and let us look at the earth and its wildlife, and renew our commitment to the environment and to conservation.

Let us have the traditional fried foods, latkes and donuts, as symbols of Hanukkah, as they reflect the significance of the ancients who saw the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. We need to remember. Let us have Hanukkah gelt, treating it in whatever way we do. For me, Hanukkah gelt will always be the $1 bill that my grandmother gave me together with a blessing over my head each year, that the $1 bill should represent 100 pennies, for 100 years of my life. She was passing the light and the optimism.

Let us place our shining menorahs on a window, or near the door, or in a public place, so we can share our Hanukkah, our miracles, our light, outside with others, to bring new inspiration to the world at large.

By giving a new optimism and respect for the continuity of our Jewish people, let the spirit of the dreidel pervade our current thinking, that a miracle happens at every moment, place and time, and we need to recognize that and celebrate it in today's world of our Jewish tradition and people.

And this year is a very special year, with the rare convergence of the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, when the lights of our two festivals are celebrated together in America. And so I share this wonderful story, told by Rabbi Susan Grossman, about General George Washington's Hanukkah at Valley Forge in 1777, when he walked among his troops, with the Continental Army cold and hungry and the outlook bleak, and he came upon a soldier over two candles, lighting the menorah.

The soldier told General Washington about our celebration of the Maccabees and the miracle of their victory over tyranny, renewing his hope, and giving him inspiration for his continued fight against the British, on this very special December 24, 1777, the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve.

As Rabbi Grossman concluded her story of George Washington, in the most perfectly American Way, the miracle from one religion gives courage and comfort to each other. Yes, to me Hanukkah is more than celebrating that one vial of oil that lasted eight days. Hanukkah is recognition of the miracle that God has given me in life, and the light that shines on me and from me, and on and from each one of us.

Howard Teich, a practicing attorney in New York City, has held multiple leadership positions in the New York and the national Jewish community. This is an updated article form one first run in the Jewish Tribune Group, December 11-17, 2015.

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