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It’s one of the most famous questions asked about the celebration of Hanukah – but one of the answers may change the way we look at this holiday, and the way we look at life.
As we know, after the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks and regained their religious freedom, they entered the Bet Hamikdash which had been defiled by the Greeks during their reign of oppression. They found that all the oil stored for the kindling of the menorah was contaminated, with the exception of one small jug, which contained the quantity of oil needed to sustain the menorah for one day. Miraculously, that small bit of oil kept the candles burning for eight days, until new oil could be produced and brought to the Temple. In commemoration, we observe the
eight-day holiday of Hanukah.
Already Maran (Rav Yosef Karo), author of the Shulhan Aruch, posed the question in his Bet Yosef as to why Hanukah is celebrated for eight days. Although the candles burned for eight days, only seven of those days were miraculous. The oil was sufficient for one day of kindling even without the miracle, and so if we want to celebrate the miracle of the oil, it would seem appropriate to celebrate for just seven days, not eight.
The Other Hanukah Miracle
Entire books have been written on this topic, and dozens of answers have been suggested. Among them is the answer proposed by the Peri Hadash (Rav Hizkiya Da Silva, 17th century), who asserted that the first night of Hanukah celebrates a different miracle, namely, the Hasmoneans’ military triumph.
As we emphasize in the Al Hanissim prayer which we recite throughout Hanukah, the Hasmoneans were a small group of righteous Jews, not a large, well-armed, professionally-trained army. While some children’s books unfortunately depict the Maccabee soldiers as large, muscular warriors with advanced weaponry, the truth is that they were not a strong army. In Al Hanissim, we praise Gd for defeating “the mighty at the hands of the weak, and the many at the hands of the few.” We might draw a rough comparison to Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, when a population of just
600,000 Jews was surrounded by large, well-funded armies from throughout the Arab world, that assaulted the newly-declared state from the north, east and south. The small Israeli army defeated the Arab forces and even expanded its small territory. Just
19 years later, in 1967, when Israel came under attack from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, it doubled its territory. This was a modern-day version of “the mighty at the hands of the weak, and the many at the hands of the few,” and gives us a sense of the miraculous nature of the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks.
Accordingly, the Peri Hadash suggests, the miracle of the oil is celebrated for only seven days – from the second day, when the miracle began after the oil should have been consumed, through the eighth day. The first day of Hanukah celebrates the miracle
that preceded the miracle of the oil, namely, the Hasmoneans’ unlikely victory over the Greeks.
(Others suggest, along similar lines, that the first day of Hanukah celebrates the fact that a jug of pure oil was discovered. The Greeks had sought to utterly defile the Mikdash and make it impossible for the Jews to ever serve Gd there again, and this effort included contaminating all the oil. Miraculously, one jug of oil was somehow overlooked. This was truly a miracle, and this is what we celebrate the first day of Hanukah, before celebrating the seven days of the candles burning.)
This answer, however, requires further elaboration. While we can easily understand the requirement to celebrate the miracle of the Hasmoneans’ victory, it seems peculiar that this miracle is celebrated by the lighting of a candle. According to the Peri Hadash, we light a candle on the first night of Hanukah not because of anything involving the kindling of the menorah in the Temple, but rather to celebrate a military victory. Why would this miracle be celebrated through the lighting of a candle? And is it not strange that we commemorate and publicize two distinct miracles the same way, by performing the same act – lighting candles?
We tend to think that miracles are infrequent occurrences, or events that took place only in Biblical times. Even if we hear of miracles witnessed in recent generations, or even in our time, we associate the word “miracle” with an exceptionally rare event.
But this is not correct. The irrefutable proof is the text of the Modim section of our Amidah prayer, which we recite at least three times each day. In this section, we express gratitude to the Almighty “for Your miracles which are with us every day, and for Your wonders and Your acts of goodness at all times, evening, morning, and afternoon.” Gd’s miracles occur “every day,” and His wonders unfold “at all times, evening, morning, and afternoon.”
How can this be? How can we honestly speak of Gd performing miracles throughout the day, every day, if we hardly ever, if at all, witness or experience supernatural events?
The answer is that there are two kinds of miracles – one of which is, indeed, extremely rare, while the other is extremely common.
This fundamental tenet of Judaism is famously developed by one of the great Sephardic scholars and thinkers, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, 1194-1270), in his Torah commentary (end of Parashat Bo). The Ramban writes that Gd, in His infinite wisdom, decided to run the world according to a fixed set of consistent laws of nature. He wanted the universe to operate not haphazardly, but rather in an orderly, generally predictable fashion, such that the sun rises and sets each day at expected times, seasons change at set periods each year, the human body and other organisms function through fixed natural processes, and so on and so forth. On very rare occasions, however, Gd overturns the laws of nature, an event which we call a “miracle.” Examples include the plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the sea. Events like these are, of course, the exception, the rule being the generally consistent and unchanging natural order. The purpose of these infrequent supernatural events, the Ramban
explains, is to reveal that even the natural events are miraculous. By occasionally overturning the laws of nature, Gd reminds us that nature is fully in His control. When Gd split the sea, He showed us that He created the sea and each day governs it and exerts absolute control over every single drop of water therein. When Gd delayed sunset in the times of Yehoshua to allow the Israelite army to complete its victory before dark, He demonstrated that He exerts absolute control over the sun, and it is He who has it set each day at its fixed time. When Gd turned the water in the Nile River into blood, He made it clear that He controls the world’s water and ensures at every moment that we have fresh water available.
In short, as the Ramban writes, the supernatural miracles serve to show us that all of nature is “miraculous.”
Let us imagine a world that has no sun. We do not have to wonder how there could be existence without sun, because the same Gd that created our solar system could just as easily create some other system. The inhabitants of this imaginary world have never seen a sun or anything resembling a sun. Then, one morning, unexpectedly, a sun rises over the eastern horizon. How would the people react? They would be stunned. They would stand in awe and amazement of this wonder. An event that we take for granted and to which we pay absolutely no attention, for them is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an extraordinary miracle.
This is precisely the message the Ramban is teaching us. The difference between a “supernatural” miracle and a “natural” miracle is just one thing: frequency. Something that happens all the time is a “natural” miracle, whereas something that happens on very rare occasions is “supernatural.” Other than this factor, they are identical. Natural miracles are every bit as miraculous, and as much an expression of Gd’s unlimited power, as the supernatural miracles. The only reason Gd makes supernatural miracles is to show us that nature is also miraculous.
The Morning Blessings
At this point, I need to correct something I wrote earlier. In discussing the sunrise, I wrote that it is something “we take for granted and to which we pay absolutely no attention.” This is not correct. We observant Jews do not take the sunrise for granted or ignore it. Twice each day, before the morning Shema and again before the evening Shema, we acknowledge and give praise to Gd for the miracle of the daily cycle of sunrise and sunset, and light and darkness. As the Ramban writes, this is a fundamental tenet of Jewish belief – that Gd controls all of nature, and even so-called “natural” and “ordinary” events are brought about by the Almighty. Understandably, then, our sages formulated daily prayer texts through which we are reminded of the great miracle of the most “natural” miracle – the rising and setting of the sun.
This is also the underlying purpose of the birkot hashahar – the series of blessings we recite each morning at the beginning of the Shaharit prayer service. We give praise to Gd for seemingly “simple” things such as our eyesight
(“poke’ah ivrim”), our clothing (“malbish arumim”), our mobility (“matir asurim,” “hamechin mitzadeh gaver”), the ground (“roka ha’aretz al hamayim”), our physical strength (“hanoten laya’ef koah”), and our ability to wake up after sleep (“hama’avir shenah me’enai”). We recite a berachah before and after we eat, and even after we use the restroom.
The purpose of these blessings is not only to train ourselves to feel grateful – though that itself would certainly be enough of a reason to recite them – but also to heighten our awareness of the daily miracles that we experience, to recognize that every aspect of existence is truly miraculous. We have a ground to tread upon only because Gd put it there and keeps it there. We are able to open our eyes and see only because Gd at every moment keeps our brain and eyes functioning. We are able to get out of bed and move about because Gd at every moment keeps our bodies in working order. We are able to eliminate harmful waste from our bodies only because Gd at every moment operates these vitally important biological systems. And none of this is any less miraculous than the splitting of the sea to save our ancestors as they fled from the Egyptian army.
Returning to Hanukah, we perhaps now have the key to understanding the celebration of the first night of this holiday. We asked, if the first night celebrates not the miracle of the oil’s endurance, but rather the victory over the Greeks, then why do we celebrate by lighting a candle? The answer, perhaps, is that the sages who instituted the Hanukah observance wanted to impress upon us that the two Hanukah miracles, which might outwardly seem fundamentally distinct from one another, are really one and the same. The miracle of the oil was supernatural, as the laws of nature – which would allow that quantity of oil to sustain the candles of the menorah for just one day – were overturned, such that the candles burned for eight days. By contrast, the Jews’ victory over the Greeks could be explained as the result of natural causes. Just as countless historians and military experts advanced different theories to explain Israel’s stunning victories in its early, fragile years, similarly, the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks could be explained naturally, as no natural laws were overturned. Our sages therefore required us to celebrate the military victory the same way we celebrate the miracle of the oil – to emphasize that they are both equally miraculous. The fact that one miracle entailed an overt suspension of natural law and the other did not in no way makes the former greater than the latter. As the Ramban teaches, the supernatural miracles are to remind us that nature, too, is miraculous.
Where is Gd?
This message is, in fact, alluded to in the first blessing we recite before lighting the Hanukah candles: “lehadlik ner Hanukah.” Whereas Ashkenazim recite the text, “lehadlik ner shel Hanukah,” Sephardic practice follows the view of the
Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria of Safed, 16th century), who taught that the word “shel” should be omitted. We thus recite the phrase, “lehadlik ner Hanukah,” the first letters of which are the same as the first letters of one of Gd’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy: “notzer hesed la’alafim” (“He preserves kindness for thousands [of generations]” – Shemot 34:7). Gd grants reward to, and bestows special kindness upon, the “alafim,” those who live their lives with a firm belief in “alef,” that everything is controlled by the one, true Supreme Being. This axiom is embedded within the blessing on the Hanukah candles because this is among the primary messages of this mitzvah – the belief that Gd controls everything, even that which appears to unfold “naturally,” on its own.
It would be a grave mistake to think that Hanukah is only about the supernatural miracle of the oil. If this is all we think about on this holiday, then we have missed the point. Hanukah is also about the sunrise, the sunset, the rain and snow that come from the sky, our homes, our clothing, our cars, our functioning bodies, our families – in short, everything. The purpose of celebrating the great Hanukah miracle is to remind us that everything else is also a miracle. The fact that Gd made oil sustain candles for eight times the anticipated duration testifies that He makes our Shabbat candles burn for three hours every Friday night, He makes our electric lights go on, and He keeps our hearts beating. This is the lesson we should be contemplating each night of Hanukah as we light the candles.
Some people ask, “Why doesn’t Gd let us see Him? If He really controls My life, then why doesn’t He show me?”
The answer is that He does show us, but we too often aren’t looking.
Imagine an orchestra that is hired to play at a wedding, and, for some reason, they musicians decide to play their music behind a thin wall that separates them from the dance floor. The family and guests are enjoying themselves dancing ecstatically to the lively music, but then somebody starts wondering where the music is coming from. He hears the music loud and clear, but he can’t see anybody producing it, so he is perplexed. He knows the music isn’t being played by itself, but he doesn’t see any musicians. After going around asking other guests, he is told that the musicians are playing behind a wall.
Gd governs our world from behind a wall. We don’t see Him, but His “music” is clearly heard, and His handiwork is clearly seen, if we just take the time to open our ears and listen, and open our eyes and look.
May the special joy of Hanukah inspire us to keep our eyes open throughout our lives to see Gd’s guiding hand at all times, to always appreciate and marvel at His unlimited kindness and grace, which we pray He continues bestowing upon us and our families forever, amen.