January 28, 2023 |


Does God have our back? I mean, can we Jews rely on Divine protection? Because we really need it. On one hand, we are still around. Despite thousands of years and the demise of all the other ancient civilizations, the Jews are still kicking. On the other hand, who has suffered like we have? Anti-semitism is about as constant as gravity and the Shoah[1] - not to diminish the awful enormity of it - is not the first time the streets have run with Jewish blood.

In every generation, there are Jews who are ready to give up on God and the Jewish people. Some like Christianity or Buddhism better (the grass is always greener on the other side), some feel that religion is passe and primitive and some just can't be bothered to make room in their schedules. If the Jews are ready to give up God, perhaps God will one day decide to give up on the Jews. It COULD happen. When the Jews were wandering -- and very thirsty -- in the desert, they wondered alound "Is God in our midst or not?" (Sh'mot 17:7) As punishment for this (according to the Midrash Rabba 26:2) God immediately sent Amalek to atack them. This, dear Jews, is what it would feel like all the time if I were not with you. When Moshe lifted his hands to the Heavens, the Jews remembered their covenant with Hashem and began to defeat Amalek. When Moshe dropped his hands, they forgot. And failed. Similarly, when the Jews sinned in the episode of the spies[2] (Bemidbar 13-14) , God told Moshe that He would wipe them out in an instant and start a new nation with Moshe. It was only Moshe's intercession that saved them, as Hashem said: "I have forgiven them" but only "because of your words."(Bemidbar 14:20) In the wake of the Shoah, there were others that have said that God abandoned us or that we should abandon Him or, so to speak, we could keep living together without being married.

So, it COULD happen that the Jews will abandon God or that God wil abandon the Jews. But it WON'T. Why not? How can I be so sure? It's not just because I have faith in Hashem and faith in the Jews and not just because I don't plan on giving up on Hashem and neither will my colleagues, friends and students. I am sure because this is what Chanuka is all about.

There are two miracles in the story of Chanuka and, with good reason, we are sometimes confused about which one to pay attention to. The first miracle is the military victory of the Hasmonean Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks. The Maccabees were a small guerilla force fighting against an empire and their success is an amazing story of dedication and hope against overwhelming odds. Little boys can revel in the heroism of Judah Maccabee and strong Israelis can see in the struggle in those days (bayamim ha-hem) echoes of the miraculous victories that the modern state of Israel fought to create itself and to survive among an ocean of Arab hostility. We commemorate this miracle in the stirring prayer called "al ha-Nisim", where we give thanks that "the mighty were given into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure ones into the hands of the pure ones and the cynics into the hands of those who study the Torah."

The second miracle is the miracle of the one cruse of oil that provided light for eight days.This is the story we tell our children and the miracle that explains why we light our chanukiot for eight nights. It is a beautiful symbol of light and hope at the darkest time of the year and it reminds us of how God helped us to bring holiness back to the devastated Temple. This miracle is commemorated in the a celebrated passage from the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) that tells the story and is told and retold in all our living rooms and classrooms.

Now, these two miracles are both very similar and very different from each other. Both celebrate the accomplishments of the few against the many; the few Jews against the many Greeks and the small amount of oil against the many days until pure oil arrived[3]. Both are victories for the Jewish people and both are essential elements of the holiday. Rabbi Soloveitchik (in Days of Deliverance" p.130) notes that the Maccabees were not really fighting for political freedom but for religious freedom. Thus, both miracles evoke the yearning to be able -despite external hindrances - to serve Hashem freely.

However, they are also very different. The military victory was very public. It was loud, dramatic and powerful. The miracle of the oil, on the other hand, was very private, witnessed by only a very few in the Temple and was soft, quiet, delicate. The military victory shows Hashem's presence in the physical world of politics and warfare, while the miracle of the oil represents a spiritual kind of victory in the realm of values and belief. The military victory is only miraculous in its outcome not in its process, as opposed to the miracle of the oil, in which the very laws of nature were manipulated.

Both miracles also express the idea that God was with us. It was not only the valiant Maccabees that brought victory, but the implacable hand of Hashem that enabled it as well. It was not just the optimism of those who lit the menora that first day, but also Hashem who made it last. However, the military victory (which restored Jewish autonomy to Judea) was very temporary. Not only was Jewish autonomy under the later Hasmoneans over-rated[4], but it was eventually taken away again. The nature of political fortunes is that they rise and fall. The miracle of the oil, though, represents something eternal, the idea that the light of the menora can last far longer than you might ever have expected; in fact, forever. So, the military victory suggests that Hashem is with the Jewish people and enables their success in the physical world sometimes, but is with us in a spiritual way and enables our spritual success always.

I saw it said in the name of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro that the miracle of the oil is similar to the miracle of the burning bush. Just as the bush burned but was not consumed¸ so too the oil burned and was not consumed. When Moshe encountered the burning bush, he was alone, just a simple shepherd. The Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt with no chance of escape. It was a low point of Jewish history, a time when their faith was about to break. At this kind of time, a person might doubt that God is really with them. The bush (a simple and lowly plant) is radiant with God's presence to say that even in humble people and low times, Hashem is with us. The oil burns on Chanuka to say that even when the beit ha-mikdash (Temple) lies in ruins and there is no pure oil, I am with you. Your belief will suffice.

Instead of the public victory of war, the miracle of the oil is a private victory, a calm self-assurance that our belief in Hashem is warranted, that He is always with us. It does not need to be shouted from the rooftops or change the political landscape. What is important is that WE know - individually - that Hashem is with us, even when we might feel that He is not.

Given the power of the message of the miracle of the oil, it is surprising that the al ha-Nisim prayer does not include any mention of it[5]. The one explicit prayer incorporated into our service about Chanuka says only: "and afterwards [i.e. after they won the battle], your sons came to your inner sanctum and cleaned out the sanctuary and purified your Temple and they lit candles in the courtyards of your Holy place and established these eight days of Chanuka..."

In this short summary, there is no mention of a miracle. Moreover, the candles they lit in the courtyard could not have been the menora itself (which would have been inside the Temple) nor does it suggest that the burning of the candles is connected with the number eight. The whole element of the one small jug that lasted is missing!

I suggest (and this is my own interpretation) that the reason for this is that it is unnecessary to mention the miracle of the oil. Why? Because earlier in the same prayer, we have already said "we thank you (modim anachnu lach) .. for the miracles of every day (al nisecha sheb'chol yom)" The miracles of every day are contrasted with the special miracles that only happened on Chanuka. The special miracle that happened on Chanuka was the military victory and the re-dedication of the Temple. But perhaps the "miracles of every day" refers to the miracle of being aware that Hashem is always with us, that He will never let the light go out.

This is the message of the oil. The oil of the one small jug did not just burn for eight days; it burned for as long as it needed to. It burned until new oil could be found to take its place. So, too, our belief in Hashem and His belief in us will burn for as long as it needs to, through thick and thin, even when we might think it would go out. For as long as we need it to burn, it will. Happy Chanuka and shabbat shalom!

[1] A Hebrew term for what is usually called the Holocaust.

[2] Ten of the spies and the people voiced their lack of belief that Hashem would help them conquer the promised land.

[3] One might note that the military victory is quantitatively expresses, while the oil is qualitative. For further study.

[4] From Aristobulus and on, they became very corrupt and irreligious rulers.

[5] We might similarly ask - but not in this essay - why the Talmud makes no mention of the miracle of the military victory. It is almost as if the siddur and the Talmud have taken different views of the holiday, though, of course, my preferred explanation would be that they are simply emphasizing different elements without rejecting either.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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Chaya Kaplan-Lester

Joined: March 6, 2011

Chaya Kaplan-Lester is a psychotherapist, Jewish educator and writer. She is co-founder of The Jerusalem Center for Transformative Torah and Therapy. Her "Parsha Poetry" commetaries are popular across the Jewish spectrum, and can be found weekly on the Jerusalem Post online (along with youtube video...

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