Why is Hanukkah eight days? Ask a Jewish child and she’ll tell you: because of the miracle of the oil. The Maccabees found only enough oil for one night, but, as indicated on the dreidel, “A Great Miracle Happened There,” and the oil miraculously lasted for eight days!
Now, a wise child might ask: if there was enough oil for one night and it lasted for eight nights, isn’t the miracle only for seven days? Or, put differently, how is the first night a miracle? After all, the oil was expected to last for that first night.
The great Jewish legal scholar and mystic, Rabbi Yosef Karo who lived in Tzfat, Israel, in the 16th century, asked the same question (Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 670:1). He offers three possible answers:
1. They divided the oil they found into eight parts and placed one portion in the menorah each night, which nonetheless burned until morning. Thus, a miracle occurred every night.
2. After they filled the menorah on the first night the jar remained full of oil as it was in the beginning, and thus the miracle was recognizable even on the first night.
3. They poured all the oil into the menorah on the first night and though the candles burned all night they found them still full of oil in the morning, and so it happened each night.
Each of Rabbi Karo’s answers preserves the supernatural miracle of the oil. Perhaps the miracle of the first night lies with the people, not with the oil. What miracle do you think happened on the first night?
The 20th century rabbi, David Hartman, writes, “The miracle of the first day was expressed in the community’s willingness to light a small cruse of oil without reasonable assurance that their efforts would be sufficient to complete the rededication of the Temple.” Rabbi Hartman locates the miracle in the hearts of the people, their bravery and courage to immediately rededicate the Temple, despite not knowing how to keep the menorah aflame.
How many times throughout history has our survival depended upon a leap of action, the bravery and courage to act despite not knowing how we will succeed? This is the same bravery and courage that the early sages drew upon when they revitalized Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system in 70 CE. This is the same bravery and courage that ordinary Jews exhibited in maintaining their faith in the wake of the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition. And, this is the same bravery and courage that the pre-state Zionists displayed in daring to dream of a sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel and those who fought for Israel’s independence despite the CIA’s conclusion in 1947 that the Jews would be destroyed by the Arabs.
Rabbi Hartman continues, “The ‘miracle’ of Jewish spiritual survival throughout its history of wandering and oppression may be best described by our people’s strength to live without guarantees of success and to focus on how to begin a process without knowledge of how it would end.” The Jewish spirit is imbued with a deep faith to take a leap of action without knowing how things will turn out.
It is this bravery, this courage, and this faith that is needed now, more than ever. From global problems, to domestic challenges, to issues facing the Jewish people, tomorrow’s leaders will need that Maccabean bravery, courage, and faith to work each day to resolve problems whose solutions seem elusive.
The miracle of the first night is the miracle of the Jewish spirit. It’s the miracle that we, despite our history of hardships, increasing antisemitism, and a turning away from religion, we still light the flame. And we use that flame, the Shamash, to kindle another flame. We know not what the world will behold for our children and grandchildren. Our children and grandchildren know not how to solve the myriad of problems that plague humanity. But, like the Maccabees of old, we all light the menorah, sharing the faith our people have shared for centuries: that better days are still to come.
Chag urim sameach – Happy Hanukkah.
Rabbi Michael Ragozin leads Congregation Shirat Hayam of Swampscott.