Monday, December 22, 2003
Speaking of Hanukkah:
As everyone pretty much knows, Hanukkah celebrates a miracle involving light. When the Hasmonean rebels finally defeated the Seleucid (and Hellenizing Jewish) rulers of Israel, they seized the defiled Temple in Jerusalem, and set about to cleanse and rededicate it. One of the first things they needed to do was relight the eternal flame with pure, undefiled olive oil. They found a small cruse of oil, enough to keep the lamp lit for one day only, and they knew it would take eight days to prepare new oil to keep the lamp lit thereafter. Nonetheless, they immediately relit the lamp. Miraculously, that one-day worth of oil lasted a full eight days, enough time for new oil to be prepared to keep it lit.
So why is this a miracle? Because the oil lasted longer than expected? What if they oil had lasted five days instead of eight - long enough to be very surprising, even inexplicable in rational terms, but not long enough to prepare new oil, so that the lamp went out. Would that also have been a miracle?
No, it would not. A miracle is not simply an unexpected, unlikely or inexplicable event. If you win the lottery, that's not a miracle. A miracle is a miracle because of its meaning, its relation to something of higher significance and purpose.
So what is the meaning of this particular miracle?
It seems to me that the significance is that God, by means of this miracle, was assisting in the rededication of the Temple, was making sure that the Temple would become operative again as quickly as possible, and effectively rewarding the Hasmoneans for lighting the lamp even when there was not enough oil, and therefore for trusting that the Temple *would* become operative again, in spite of its defilement.
Recall that at this point in history, Temple sacrifice was the primary means by which Israel atoned for its sins. Without the Temple, it was not obvious to many that sin *could* be atoned for (though, as we are tought, repentance, prayer and deeds of lovingkindness are similarly capable of achieving the necessary reconciliation with God after sin).
Moreover, it is not a given that God would allow the Temple to continue to play this role. When Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia invaded and conquered Judea in the 6th century B.C.E., the invaders destroyed the Temple, which remained a ruin until after the Jewish return under Ezra and Nehemiah, seventy years later. Centuries after, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and has not year been rebuilt - and will not be until the coming of the Messianic Age.
At the end of the Book of Lamentations, written after the destruction of the First Temple, the authors cries out: "Turn us toward you, HASHEM, and we shall return; renew our days as of old." The Temple was the familiar route to reconciliation with God. But God does not always allow us to pursue familiar paths back to Him. Sometimes, He makes us learn new ways, sometimes difficult ways. Other times, He leaves the old ways open. On Hanukkah, He left the old ways open, and renewed our days as of old, for a time. And that is the significance of the miracle.
May our old ways yet suffice; may we all be granted that by doing what we already know how to do that is pleasing in God's eyes, we may be reconciled to Him, for this season and for seasons to come.
Chag Urim Sameach.