Hanukka – the culmination of Jewish historical miracles

The spectacular miracles of Jewish history testify that there are times when the Creator reveals His providence.

Hanukka (illustrative). (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hanukka (illustrative).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We read the headlines and we wonder: Where is God in all of this? What sense does our world possess in terms of God’s plan for His creation? Meanwhile, Hanukka is approaching.
Perhaps the miracle that occurred more than two millennia ago can help us learn how to look at our world today.
The motto of Hanukka, “nes gadol haya po” (“a great miracle occurred here”) makes us think of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days.
It is striking that the liturgy omits mention of this miracle entirely. The “al hanisim” (“for the miracles”) addition to the prayers and the blessing after meals, and even the paragraph “haneros halolu” (“these candles”) introducing the lighting of the menorah, express praise and thanks only for the military victory.
How can this be explained? There are two more puzzles in the details of our celebration of Hanukkah.
The Maccabees entered the Temple and purified it on the 25th of Kislev. They lit the menorah on the night of the 26th.
Why then do we start lighting on the night of the 25th? Also, the Beis Yosef famously asked: One day’s supply of oil burning for eight days is only seven days of miracle. Why then do we light for eight days? In order to understand the answer to these questions we need to reflect on what can be learned from the miracles of Jewish history.
First, the exodus. Egypt experienced 10 miraculous plagues. The plagues fall into two groups – completely anti-natural events, and events in which natural phenomena occurred in a supernatural fashion. Blood, hail, darkness and death of the firstborn form the first category.
On no known occasion has water naturally turned to blood, nor have hail stones contained fire, nor has darkness impeded movement, nor has disease struck only the firstborn.
Consider the response of a polytheistic observer: “So the Jews do have a god who can sometimes overpower the gods of other forces.”
Frogs, lice, wild animals, cattle disease, boils and locusts form the second category. The frogs came from the river where they naturally breed. However, the quantity was spectacularly greater than ever before, and they appear and disappear exactly when Moses says they will. The same holds for the lice, wild animals, cattle disease, boils and locusts.
This time the polytheistic observer is forced to a different response: “The forces of nature that operate continuously were, in this case, governed by the Jewish god. And since we recognize one god for each natural force – one god of the sun, one god of war, etc. – do the instances in which clearly the Jewish god caused these natural forces to operate indicate that the Jewish god is behind those forces all the time?” The first category of plagues shows God’s power to overcome nature. The second implies that God is the source of all the other powers. This threatens the entire polytheistic worldview: all of the forces of so-called nature are in fact Divine providence.
This is our first guidepost for understanding our world: The spectacular miracles of Jewish history testify that there are times when the Creator reveals His providence.
The last two national miracles of Jewish history – Purim and Hanukkah – introduce a complementary theme.
Recall the events of the Book of Esther. The opening banquet, the refusal of the queen to make an appearance, her removal from office, the search for a new queen culminating in the choice of Esther, and the attempt upon the king’s life overheard by Mordechai and revealed to the king by Esther. They would have appeared to observers to be natural political intrigue. When Mordechai’s life is saved and Esther is in position to plead for the Jewish people, it becomes obvious that those events were providential. The lesson is that the seemingly happenstance events of everyday life are sometimes revealed later to express Divine providence.
The same idea applies to Hanukka.
The holiday celebrates the military victory and the burning of the oil. The Maharal says that the military victory was to all appearances a natural event.
True, the few and weak prevailed over the many and the strong. But that has happened numerous times in history, especially when the smaller and weaker force is fighting for freedom from foreign military intervention.
The stimulus of the Jewish uprising was the abomination the Greeks performed in the Temple – offering pigs to Zeus. The revolt was led by priests with the goal of purifying the Temple and serving God as He instructed. When they restored the service, the miracle of the oil occurred immediately.
The Greeks sought to defile all that the Torah defines as holy. The miracle showed that the high priest’s certification of the purity of the oil, and the oil itself which confers holiness of the vessels of the Temple, are beyond the reach of Greek power of defilement.
The miracle expressed God’s purpose in the war. The victory was not for the sake of political independence but for the sake of renewed holy service. It was because the Maccabees and their followers fought for this purpose that they were victorious. Thus, the Maharal concludes, the miracle of the oil shows the Divine providence in the military victory.
Now we can answer the questions with which we started. Why do we start lighting one day early? And why do we light for eight nights when the miraculous burning was only seven nights? Because the lighting on the first night commemorates the military victory. We celebrate the victory as an expression of Divine providence.
The absence of the oil from the liturgy directs us to focus on the seemingly natural victory and recognize its providential nature. As important as the oil is, do not get lost in the oil! The message of Divine providence in seemingly natural events is the ultimate message of the miracles of Jewish history.
This second theme is crucial for all of us. We live in a time whose events appear overwhelmingly antithetical to Divine providence. It demands great spiritual and intellectual strength to maintain the deeper vision of a God-directed world. The lesson of Hanukka is that there is a balance between Divine providence that is revealed and that which is not, and sometimes patience reveals what was formerly hidden.
Could anyone 70 years ago have visualized the flourishing of Torah study and life in Israel and in America? Internalizing this lesson is a powerful means to preserve that deeper vision.
The author is a rabbi and a former member of the Dept. of Philosophy of Johns Hopkins University, and currently teaches at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach.