In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the rabbis ask a deceptively simple question: ‘Mai Chanukah?’ ‘What is Chanukah?’ It’s almost as if they’re not sure what it is, or why we celebrate it. What they really want to do is to get to the essence of Chanukah. And so they explain that when the Maccabees were victorious over the Syrian Greeks, they found only one cruise of oil for the menorah—enough only to last one day, and it burned miraculously for eight days. This, of course, is a far cry from what we read in our siddur—that the miracle was that God empowered us, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, and a great military victory was won by the Jewish people in reclaiming the Land of Israel from its defilers. Lots of ink has been spilled explaining how the Talmudic rabbis wanted to de-emphasize the military aspect of Chanukah in favor of a more spiritualized one. As adults, we can all nod knowingly at each other, acknowledging that, while the miracle of the oil makes for great children’s books about Chanukah, the real miracle was military. We don’t need rabbinic simplifications to appreciate what we really commemorate on Chanukah.
But today, before we dismiss the miracle of the oil outright, I would like us to look again at why the rabbis had us focus on the light of that oil. They were not simply trying to cover over a military commemoration. The rabbis were much smarter than that. They wanted us to discover the real meaning of the miracle of Chanukah. You see, what happened way back around the year 167 B.C.E. was far more than a struggle against an oppressive power that outlawed Judaism and defiled the Temple. What happened was that it was the first time that there was a clash between conflicting worldviews, between two different visions for how the world should be. On the one hand, you had the Jews in the Land of Israel, upholding Torah, living for a vision of a world united in justice and holiness recognizing God as the source of all goodness and ethics. On the other hand, you had an idea called Hellenism, brought to the Middle East by Alexander the Great. With Hellenism came a different vision of one world—a world united by the values of humanism, informed by Greek philosophy and run according to the principles of government that the Greeks so famously brought to the world. Indeed, there was a military squabble in the Land of Israel, but unlike so many military clashes that preceded it in the ancient world, this clash was not just about the power of kings and territories; it wasn’t even a clash between gods. It was a clash of vision: which kind of world was it going to be, Greek or Israelite? And so, whatever the details, it wasn’t just that the Temple was defiled and that Judaism was outlawed—but an entirely new kind of phenomenon appeared in the world: the phenomenon of religious persecution. For the first time, the books of Maccabees, for example, record the memory of good, observant and pious Jews being tortured to death simply because they were observing the Torah. Simply because they upheld the laws of holiness and justice! This was never before seen in the world! Prior to this, there were enemies of Israel, of course, but they never attacked us because we were righteous! So we Jewish people were not just confronted with a military problem, we had a theological problem: How could bad things happen to good people? We never had to ask that question as a people before! And the miracle of Chanukah became our response to that question…
I once heard a wonderful story about a man whose Native American friend came to visit him in New York City. The Native American had never before been to New York, or to any big city. All day he gave his friend a marvelous tour, the East Side, the West Side, uptown, downtown. When night fell, he took him to see—what else?—Times Square, with its dazzling spectacle of lights and sounds. And as they stood there, gazing at it all, the Native American suddenly started looking up with a troubled, bewildered expression, his gaze darting here and there erratically. The man became concerned about his friend: “Are you alright?” he asked. “I just heard the call of a yellow-bellied warbler bird somewhere around here, and I’m trying to find him,” said the Native American. The man laughed, “My friend, there are many noises here, and maybe lots of pigeons, but I doubt that what you heard was a yellow-bellied…” He didn’t finish his sentence when his friend excitedly pointed “There he is!” And indeed, there on a ledge was the yellow bellied warbler! The New Yorker was flabbergasted! “How could you possibly do that!?” he asked. The Native American showed him. He reached into his pocket and scattered all his change on the sidewalk. Immediately, 150 heads turned and looked for where the sound of the change was coming from. “All these people come to the city in search of riches and bargains, so their ears are trained to listen for money. On my reservation, I spend my whole life listening for the sounds of the animals and the birds. It doesn’t matter where I go. I am always listening for their voices.”
This story has many resonances in our Jewish tradition. It was Moses who, as a shepherd leading his flocks through the desert, managed to notice a lowly bush in the distance, something that so many others might not bother to notice, and in that little thorn bush he found a vision not only of the Redemption of his people, but he also met the very presence of God. It was Rabbi Akiva who, as an illiterate and uneducated peasant yearning to learn Torah, noticed how the slow drops of water near a stream carved a hole into solid rock—drop by drop by drop. If even a rock can be penetrated one drop at a time, he reasoned, then if I begin to learn one step at a time, I can learn the whole Torah. And so, step by step, drop by drop, he became one of the greatest sages we have ever known. All because he noticed the simplest little thing that you or I might not even glance at. Something within these great men knew how to look, how to notice, how to see the wisdom in the subtlest and seemingly most insignificant of places…
Herein is the essence of the miracle of Chanukah, says the Sfat Emet. This great Hasidic commentery looks at our passage in the Talmud and explains: the number eight—for the eight days of Chanukah—is a symbolic number for our people. Eight means fullness, completeness, wholeness, like the eight days before a bris, or the eight days of a festival. And that one cruise of oil represents the light of the Jewish people—embattled, weary, persecuted, filled with so much doubt and torment because they had never seen such persecution before—so much so that all the light had almost gone out in their souls—rak nekudah achat nish’eret bahem: only one bit of light was left in them. But here, says the Sfat Emet, God helped them, ‘vnitbarchah zot hanekudah, ‘ ‘and that bit of light was blessed,’ ‘uva’u b’rega achat lechol hasheleimut,’ and it came in one instant back to its fullness, its wholeness again!’ (Sfat Emet, 1:211)
In this teaching, the Sfat Emet elucidates the incredible wisdom of the Talmud: even a military victory wasn’t enough to restore a people who had witnessed good and righteous people suffer and die because they were good and righteous. It was going to take a whole new kind of miracle. This moment was a great test of who we are as ‘Am Yisrael. Generations of our people had led up to this moment: keeping God’s commandments, upholding righteousness, lighting the lights of the Menorah in the Temple. And for what purpose? For this purpose: to train us to seek out the light. In the days of Matathias son of Yohanan, the Hasmonean Kohein, a new kind of cruel power rose against our people Israel, a new kind of darkness that we had not known before: the darkness of human evil and persecution. Innocent good people were massacred, women and children tortured to death simply because they were Jews faithful to the Torah. And indeed, a miracle happened. The miracle only started with the military victory. The real miracle was that we were willing to come back to that Temple, to rededicate it, purify it, and to seek out a way to find the light within it again—despite the cruelty of the world around us that we had never seen before. A thousand years before Chanukah, God commanded us to be an Or LaGoyim, light to the nations, to stand for Holiness, no matter who those nations around us were, no matter what they did. The miracle wasn’t that God made the oil last eight days, the miracle was that we sought out that oil, and lit that light in the first place, despite all the reasons to doubt, despite all the reasons to walk away, despite all the reasons to give up! There was so much darkness, and the light was barely a speck in our souls. But we had come so far, we learned to be a people of the light, to find a place for light when everyone else sees darkness. To find even the faintest of light in our heart, when others may never notice it. This is the miracle of Chanukah!
But the miracle doesn’t even end there. The act of finding that light works an even greater miracle: if you can find that light, however dim, then it ceases to be the faintest point of light, it instantly transforms itself to the fullness of light within our souls once again. That’s how the world really works! If you are listening for that little bird, the whole cacophony of city lights and sound melt away. In that measly little thorn bush, the fullness of Gods great presence was there, and the fullness of our Redemption from slavery could be found. In that little drop of water on the stone, the entire Torah opened up for that illiterate old peasant named Akiva. In that one cruise of oil, the entire promise that no one suffers in vain, that goodness, holiness, and justice can never be obliterated—no matter how cruel and unfair and unkind the world may seem—the light of this whole message is restored in our hearts and in our world.The message of this miracle is still so critically relevant and important for each of us in our time. It doesn’t matter what the darkness that you may know: the darkness of economic insecurity, the darkness of war and violence, the darkness of injustice and oppression, the darkness of cancer or of the death of a loved one: seek out the light. Never give up looking for it. And it doesn’t matter how faint that light is. Even if you can find only the slightest glimmering, barely even noticeable at all—even if you can only find one moment’s peace, one ounce of strength, one act of kindness, only the slightest reason to have faith that life can be okay—if you find only that tiny one thing, then you have found the fullness of it all. This is the promise of Chanukah’s miracle: Ma’alin baKodesh v’lo Yordin: the holilness, the light, the peace, the healing will only increase and it won’t decrease, so long as we simply seek to find it. As the book of Proverbs says, “Ner HaShem Nishmat Adam “ the soul of man is the candle of God. We are the light. That light is always here. It can’t ever go out. May we always look ‘right here’ for that light, and when we find it, may we light up the whole world.