There is an old cute Yiddish adage about Hanukah that goes something like this: Such a big deal for so little oil. For many reasons, Hanukah has become a very big deal. In America, no doubt, it is related to the huge public expression and emphasis on Christmas. In Israel and all the Jewish world it undoubtedly has to do with the re-birth of the modern Maccabees, as it were. We once again have autonomy over the Land of Israel in a type of replay of events from over two thousand years ago.
I recently read a question about the length of our celebration. The question was: Why do we celebrate the miracle for eight nights/days when actually there was enough oil to burn for one day. Wouldn’t that make the miracle of the oil really a seven-day thing? There were a few answers and there is one that I wish to share. This holiday has all sorts of implications about miracles, natural occurrences and human activity. The truth is the “miracle of the oil” would not have transpired had not the person who decided to light the oil, even if there only enough for one night, done so. And so we find that this story contains a significant aspect of human agency. We have to partner with ideals, aspirations and as some say, God’s will. Nothing happens in human history without the imprint of human will.
In early American history, there is a story of George Washington coming across a Jewish soldier lighting a menorah. (The Diary of Michael and Louisa Hart). It was in Valley Forge in 1777. The soldier explained the significance of the holiday; a conviction-driven uprising, and a tactical victory against immense odds. Washington responded: “I rejoice to think that miracles could still happen.”
According to some war historians, in June 1778 Washington implemented battle tactics taken from the Maccabees. The rest is history.
Miracles can’t happen if we don’t take responsibility. And so with hope and a little oil we take the Channukiah again, as witnesses to the power of light, the power of conviction, the power of values and the meaning of light!
See you in shul.
Chag Urim Sameach
Rabbi David Steinhardt