Why was the Menorah Burning for 8 Days Such a Big Miracle?
Growing up, Hanukkah – and just about everything about Judaism – seemed vacuous and superficial. Then I started to learn.
The chairs grated on the cafeteria floor as the audience turned to find the town Jews. My younger brother was lighting Hanukkah candles in the middle of the school Christmas program. Thanks to my mother, there was a modicum of Jewish content in the school Christmas program for the single Jewish family in a remote southwestern Colorado town of 1000 residents.
I didn't share my mother's Jewish pride. Why should I stand out as the town Jew and subject myself to their taunts? Throughout my childhood, my Jewish identity remained a source of conflict. Eventually, I was compelled to check out what being a Jew should mean to me.
Do the Jewish people embody something meaningful and valuable that could engender pride? I felt I owed it to myself to find out, and if I came up empty-handed, I would change my Jewish-sounding name and dump vestiges of Jewishness. I didn't want to go through life with a conflicted Jewish identity that felt more of a liability than an asset. After completing engineering school and my first disappointing job, I traveled to Israel on a fact-finding mission.
My lack of knowledge is what made Judaism seem superficial and vacuous. Hanukkah was a good example.
Eventually, I found my way to Aish HaTorah and met people with some interesting answers. Through a deeper understanding of Jewish philosophy and practice, I realized that my lack of knowledge is what made Judaism seem superficial and vacuous. Hanukkah was a good example.
More than 2000 years ago, the Maccabees overcame the mighty Greek army in a war fought to preserve the Jewish lifestyle the Greeks sought to uproot. In rededicating the Temple, there was a shortage of usable oil for the menorah. They lit the menorah with one flask of pure oil, enough for one day. And to everyone's amazement, the flames continued to burn for an additional seven days.
Was the menorah burning an extra seven days such a big miracle that justified the Jewish people lighting a menorah for thousands of years in commemoration? What are we celebrating? God has done way more impressive miracles.
Nature and Miracle
To answer this question, we need to define some terms. Let's start with the definitions of "nature" and "miracle." We are accustomed to treating the laws of nature as permanent and immutable. The laws of physics and chemistry define the world's natural order, and we are compelled to function within that order; there is no way to circumvent them.
Jewish thought teaches that although we are compelled to function within the boundaries of nature, nature lacks its own inherent existence. The laws of nature are established and sustained by God and can be changed by God. An event that emerges in accordance with the physics that we know is called a natural event. An event that unfolds in a manner inconsistent with the physics that we know is called a miracle. In both events, however, God is pulling the strings.
There were two miracles in the Hanukkah story. There was the miracle of the oil and the miracle of the Jewish victory over the Greek army. Greece was a world power with a world-class military. The Maccabees were a family of Temple priests that initiated the war against the Greeks. The Greeks massively outnumbered the Jewish soldiers and were profoundly more skilled militarily. Had the war proceeded according to the world's natural order, the Jewish people would have suffered a total defeat. Therefore, the Jewish victory embodies a miracle; however, it's a hidden miracle shrouded within the natural order. It's the type of miracle that is not blatantly obvious until one contemplates it.
Miracle of Light
The defeat of the Greeks by the much inferior Jewish army embodied a more significant and impressive miracle than candles burning seven extra days. So why don't we highlight the bigger miracle of defeating the Greek army? The answer is that there is a danger that people would eventually dismiss the hidden miracle shrouded in the natural order and attribute the victory to the superior fighting skills and strategy of the Maccabees.
The miracle of the candles frames the military victory as a product of God's intervention as well.
In contrast, the miracle of the candles is a blatant, openly apparent miracle not attributable to the natural order. Consequently, the event will be attributed to God's intervention. The miracle of the candles sheds light on the war, framing the military victory as a product of God's intervention as well.
With this mindset, our Hanukkah candles can help us transform the way we view our own lives. Upon contemplation, we can recognize that the random events of our own personal life journey are not random at all; they are the product of God's guiding hand.
Uncovering the meaning of Hanukkah was just one example of transforming what appeared be a vacuous ritual into a practice steeped with meaning and wisdom. I found the source for my answers. Now, all I had to do was learn.
Aryeh is the author of Jewish Answers to Life's Big Questions, a book that presents a lifelong journey of answers to life's big questions frequently forgotten in the hustle and bustle of daily living. Topics include life’s purpose, rational belief systems, the human condition, spiritual reality, relationships, education, and the final reward. Click here to order.