By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
As a child, I was fascinated by the story of the Chanukah miracle. To rededicate the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks, the Jews required holy oil to light the Menorah. They found one tiny jar, enough to last just one night. Wondrously, it lasted for eight. On young me, the image of this miracle created a lasting impression. If it happened then, I reasoned, maybe it could happen again.
I still believe in miracles. Yet at some point during my years in seminary, an intensive study of the origins and evolution of Chanukah led me to realize that while Judah Maccabee and his family did lead a revolt that led to victory over the Greeks, the story about the miracle of the oil was likely a myth. In fact, no mention of this supposed event even appeared in any book until the Talmud was redacted hundreds of years later!
A wonderful aspect of our Jewish holidays is that each one focuses not only on events that occurred in history, but on specific themes. On the High Holy Days, we concentrate on renewal and self-examination. On Passover, we reflect on freedom and perseverance. On Purim, we focus on generosity and kindness as reflected in our giving of food gifts (“mishloach manot”) and gifts to people in need (“matanot l’evyonim”).
The eight days of Chanukah provide us with the opportunity to think about the theme of light and its role in our lives, personally and collectively as a society. In a year that has too often been beset by darkness, clinging to just a single sliver of hope is often the light we need to sustain us through difficult times. Perhaps we can open our hearts and act as a “shamash” — the candle that lights the other candles on the Menorah — spreading our own light to others who are suffering and need our help.
Chanukah is a time to think about those who fought against oppression and injustice and against all odds emerged victorious. It is a time to reflect on your own past personal battles and recall how you emerged from darkness into light. Perhaps this will give you the strength you need to cope with current and future challenges.
And, yes, it’s still about miracles. They exist all around us, but sometimes we need to look carefully to see them. They are in the small kindnesses we do for each other. A phone call to someone who is feeling lonely. A meal delivered to a family that has experienced a loss. Kind words of support to someone struggling to maintain a full-time job while helping his or her kids with online schoolwork. We have the capacity to be a miracle to others every day of our lives by sharing our inner light of compassion with them.
So, it really doesn’t matter whether the oil lasted for one day or eight days or even existed at all. What is truly important is the lessons we learn and revisit each year on Chanukah. Let us focus on sustaining our inner light of hope and kindness and sharing that light with others.