(Jewish leader Howard Teich and Christian theologian Paul de Vries comment on the rare spiritual mega-convergence of the first day of Hanukkah and Christmas)
To be Jewish is “to believe in miracles.” So, Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, president of the North American Board of Rabbis, told me recently.
That phrase also sums up the special meaning of Hanukkah, which we start celebrating on Saturday evening. In ancient times, a Greek ruler deliberately defiled the Temple of the Jews and most of the ceremonial oil. Although the Temple was recovered, there was only a small amount of uncontaminated oil to light the ceremonies rededicating the Temple. A miracle happened in that the one vial of oil lasted eight days. But we should also ask, is this the only miracle that we celebrate at Hanukkah?
My optimism tells me that miracles are still with us in so many ways in so many of our lives. So, the holiday of Hanukkah should be more than the eight day celebration for one miracle from 2,000 years ago. It includes a treasuring of the range of miracles that have happened to our Jewish people, even up until this very week of Hanukkah. The candles, which we light each day, are a reminder of that ancient miracle, but also that the light sweeps away the darkness in modern times.
As we spin the dreidel, a Hanukkah spinning top, the Hebrew letters of nun, gimel, hay and shin on each side pass us before us. They stand for the Hanukkah message, “Nes gadol hayah sham,” which means “A great miracle happened there.” For many of our ancestors, who lived under persecution, those letters were a spinning meditation on renewing the light and continuity of the Jewish faith. I read them too as the meaning of living in God’s world today.
The simplest version of the story, as we know it, is that a Greek kingdom conquered Israel and desecrated the temple with an altar to Zeus and various idols. Judah Maccabee, a Jewish leader, raised up a rebellion, regained control of Jerusalem in 165 BCE, and rededicated the Temple.
Then, the Jewish people needed to light the eternal light, but there was only one vial of oil, enough for perhaps a day. The rededication required eight days’ worth of oil— and the miracle occurred that the oil that was enough for only one day burned for the eight days.
A year later, the victorious Jews established the holiday of Hanukkah and celebrated for eight days. Consequently, Hanukkah became a celebration of the weak who overcome the threat of annihilation with God’s mighty 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.
Some ask, 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.
The legendary medieval Rabbi Rashi promoted a narrow focus on God’s direct action. In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi wrote that the miracle is only in the oil lasting for eight days because that is something that only God could do. Other rabbis see the miracle happening in the very moment that the Maccabeans in the face of impossible odds suspended their own doubt and committed to liberating Jerusalem and the Temple. Although their action was earthly based, God was with them in their success.
Light is always welcomed in the dark times. The famed ancient Jewish teacher Hillel proposed a symbolic counterpoint to the history of the Hanukkah miracle. He advised Jews to light one candle the first night and add one each day up to eight on the last night. The light would grow stronger during the celebration of the Hanukkah festival. We follow this custom today. The more faith you have, the brighter is the light that recedes the darkness. My viewpoint is that Jewish optimism shines into our world as a mark of our continued belief in a God that we serve on Earth as a Jewish people.
I take heed of today’s miracles, starting with the rebirth of the State of Israel, with our eternal capital Jerusalem. We surely have to include that wonder in our celebration of Hanukkah. The fact that the Jewish people never gave up was 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, if truth be told. Israel has built a country with a strong economy, a diverse people and a wealth of talent in the arts, science, design and you name it. Yes, a miracle.
As I gaze at the return of Jews to Judea and Samaria, I am witnessing a modern-day miracle. We Jews are able to again walk on the land of King David, Sarah and all our great biblical ancestors. Once again, we can reside in Hebron and Shiloh, the capitals of our original kingdom.
With optimism, the State of Israel continues as the home of the Jewish people. It is a nation committed to bringing light into a neighborhood of darkness and turmoil. That is part of the story of Hanukkah in the lighting of the candles for eight days.
There is another miracle that is easy to take for granted. The Jewish people in America have flourished in this land of freedom. They have helped to create one of the greatest civilizations in the 5,000 year history of the Jewish people. For this purpose, the Jews in America have worked shoulder to shoulder with people of every background and conviction.
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.
Turning from the big picture, we must also open our eyes and hearts to the miracles in the small things around us. Take a look at what people identify with on Facebook. They identify those miraculous moments in their daily lives as they experience them -- the sunrises, their children and their changes as they grow up, and the relationships with other people who enter into our lives in sometimes inexplicable ways.
So, let’s expand the significance of Hanukkah. Let it restore a greater understanding for young people that miracles are not just part of our past, buit are also part of today and will be in our future. When the candles are lit, let the children understand our Jewish commitment to lighting a world clouded over by significant darkness.
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 go beyond ourselves and treat other people, the earth and its wildlife from the perspective of light and not darkness.
For me, Hanukkah gelt will always be the $1 bill that my grandmother gave me together with a blessing over my head each year. She said that the $1 bill should represent 100 pennies that stand for 100 years of my life. She was passing the light of optimism onto me.
The miracle of the oil that lasted is embodied in the traditional fried foods, latkes and donuts. Our shining menorahs in a window, near the door, or a public place shares our Hanukkah, our miracles, our light, and our optimism with those passing on the outside.
Jewish optimism is rooted in our sense of the miraculous. The spirit of the dreidel pervades our thinking by flashing before our eyes the message that a miracle happens at every moment.
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.
General George Washington had a Hanukkah experience at Valley Forge in 1777. As he was walking among his troops in the Continental Army, trying to encourage them in their cold, hunger and dim prospects on the battlefield, he came upon a soldier bending over two candles to light a menorah. The soldier told General Washington about the celebration of the Maccabees and the miracle of their victory over tyranny. Washington took away a renewal of hope and inspiration for continuing the fight against the British. This was a very special December 24, 1777, the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve.
Rabbi Grossman concluded her story of George Washington in the most perfectly American Way. Here, the miracle from one religion can give courage and comfort to another. 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 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. A different version of this article was run in the Jewish Tribune Group.