Will the Real Miracle Please Stand Up? A Chanukah Study

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle.

The other is as though everything is a miracle. -- Attributed to Albert Einstein

Mishneh Torah, Scroll of Esther and Chanukah 4:12

The mitzvah of the Chanukah candle is an extremely dear one. And one must be careful with it, in order to make known the miracle and to add to the praise of God and the thanks to God for the miracles that were done for us.

Al Hanisim (from the Siddur)

"We thank You also for the miraculous deeds and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and the saving acts wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our ancestors in ancient days at this season. In the days of the Hasmonean Mattathias, son of Johanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, then You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah. Both unto Yourself did you make a great and holy name in Thy world, and unto Your people did You achieve a great deliverance and redemption. Whereupon your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name."

Shabbat 21b

What is Chanukah, that our Sages taught: On the 25th of Kislev - the days of Chanukah, they are eight, not to eulogize on them and not to fast on them? When the Greeks entered the Temple, they polluted all the oils in the Temple, and when the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they checked and they found but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the High Priest, but there was in it only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days. The following year [the Sages] fixed those [days], making them holidays for praise and thanksgiving.

Rabbi David Hartman, Trusting in a New Beginning in A Different Light

In considering the miracle of the cruse of oil, our Rabbis asked why the holiday of Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days rather than for seven days. Since there was, by all accounts, sufficient oil for one day, only seven of the eight days of burning may be designated as miraculous days. Though several ingenious explanations were offered, what strikes me as being the miraculous feature of the initial day was the community's willingness to light the lamp in spite of the fact that its anticipated period of burning was short-lived. The miracle of the first day was expressed in the community's willingness to light a small cruse of oil without reasonable assurance that their efforts would be sufficient to complete the rededication of the Temple. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle expressed by those who lit the lamp and not only the miracle of the lamp's continued burning for eight days.

  • Why do you think the community chose to light the oil?
  • When should we individually or communally take action even though our efforts may only pay off for a short period?
  • Are there benefits to taking action such as this?

Rabbi Laura Geller

“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 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 Chanukah? 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.”

  • Who are your models of courage?
  • When have you been courageous?
  • What prevents us from displaying courage?
  • How can we change ourselves or society by displaying courage?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah we light for eight days in memory of the Temple candelabrum, purified and rededicated by the Maccabees all those centuries ago. Faith is like a flame. Properly tended, it gives light and warmth, but let loose, it can burn and destroy. We need, in the twenty-first century, a global Hanukkah: a festival of freedom for all the world’s faiths. For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world.

In the rest of this article, Rabbi Sacks speaks of the challenges to freedom in our world.

  • Is freedom part of the natural order is it part of the miracle of Chanukah?
  • Why is freedom so hard to create and maintain?
  • In what ways are we free and in what ways do we lack freedom?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Third Miracle

We all know the miracles of Chanukah, the military victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks, and the miracle of the oil that should have lasted one day but stayed burning for eight. But there was a third miracle not many people know about. It took place several centuries later.

After the destruction of the second Temple, many rabbis were convinced that Chanukah should be abolished. After all, it celebrated the rededication of the Temple. And the Temple was no more. It had been destroyed by the Romans under Titus. Without a Temple, what was there left to celebrate?

The Talmud tells us that in at least one town, Lod, Chanukah was abolished. Yet eventually the other view prevailed, which is why we celebrate Chanukah to this day.

Why? Because though the Temple was destroyed, Jewish hope was not destroyed. We may have lost the building but we still had the story, and the memory, and the light. And what had happened once in the days of the Maccabees could happen again. And it was those words, od lo avdah tikvatenu, “our hope is not destroyed,” became part of the song, Hatikvah, that inspired Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their ancient state. So as you light the Chanukah candles remember this. The Jewish people kept hope alive, and hope kept the Jewish people alive. We are the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.

  • How important is hope in your life and in the life if the Jewish people?
  • When have you been hopeful and when have you been hopeless?
  • How can we foster hope for ourselves?
  • How can we bring hope to others?