Imagine that you were with the Maccabees. You have been fighting for three years against the Greeks for religious freedom, for the rights of Jews living in their homeland to practice their religion and customs according to their ancient traditions. Finally, you and your fellow soldiers have recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem. As you walk through the ruined and defiled grounds, you see the refuse of idolatrous sacrifices polluting the sacred space. The holiest items: the altar, the special table that stood outside the Holy of Holies, and the menorah, the seven branched candelabrum, are strewn about, shattered and soiled.
It is time now to reinstate the way of life that you have been fighting for these past three years, to rededicate the Temple. Time to reinstitute the daily worship of God. First and foremost among those rituals, the daily lighting of the menorah.
But there is a problem. You need fuel – oil. And not just any oil will do. You need special, purified olive oil to do it properly, but there is none to be found. There is, however, lots of defiled oil. Large open vats of it, in fact.
So now you are faced with a dilemma. What to do? You could just get some of the defiled oil and use that. After all, getting the menorah lit and starting up the sacrifices is the main point, isn’t it? Why not just use the regular stuff for the time being?
But that will not do. What have you been fighting for these past three years? For your ancient laws and traditions. No. It must be done properly. We cannot compromise our standards.
So you and your fellows begin to look around among the refuse. After hours of searching, a child runs up, excited, clutching a container of oil. The wax seal is embossed with the symbol of the High Priest, indicating that the olive oil inside is pure, and fit for Temple use.
This small discovery raises another dilemma. There is enough oil to light the daily offering once. But it is going to take at least another week before more purified oil can be prepared. You could use this oil, but you will face the exact same situation again tomorrow. The rededication of the Temple will fizzle out after only a day.
Someone speaks up with a rational proposal. “Why bother lighting a flame that is bound to burn out before the Temple is rededicated? Let’s wait a week for the olive oil presses to ramp up production. Then, we’ll have all the fuel we need. We can start up the daily offerings without having to worry about what to do tomorrow. It’s been three years. What is one more week?”
But that is not what you decide to do. You light the menorah on the spot – right then and there. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. There are no guarantees. But right now, in this imperfect moment, when we have no assurance that we will be able to complete the rededication of the Temple, we can take advantage of the opportunities before us, and light the lights.
So that is what you do. The soldiers gather around, and watch as the newly instated priest breaks open the seal on the jar of oil, fills the cups in the menorah, and kindles the flame.
You are probably familiar with the miracle that comes next. After one day, the light still burns. It continues to burn, defying everyone’s expectations, for seven additional days. Finally, a new batch of oil is ready, and the daily offerings can continue.
So what is the miracle of Chanukkah? That the small amount of oil, which was only enough for one day, burned for eight days? That is what we are taught. But truth be told, it’s kind of weak.
The Rabbis ask a question. Technically, the miracle only lasted from days 2 through 8. Perhaps, therefore, if Chanukkah is meant to celebrate the miracle of the oil, it should only be celebrated for seven days. There was no miracle on the first day, because there was enough oil.
Rabbi David Hartman suggests that “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.”*1*
In fact, that is the real miracle. We tell the story of Chanukkah, and we just kind of rush through our explanations of the oil burning seven days longer than it should. But for the Maccabees who had to make the decision about what to do, they were stepping out into the unknown.
They acted, even though there was no guarantee of success, no sure knowledge of how things would turn out in the end.
Miracles require human agency. They require courageous decisions by committed people who are not assured of a positive outcome.
Most of us, when considering whether to undertake an action whose completion is not guaranteed, tend to not start. That is the rational approach, after all. Why waste the effort?
But sometimes, the decision to act, especially when the outcome is unknown, leads us down new, unexpected paths, and opens doors that we could have never foreseen.
That is the miracle of the first day of Chanukkah. That this ragtag group of Maccabees took advantage of the opportunities that were presented to them in that moment, in the form of a small vessel of oil. “The Hanukkah lamp burned for eight days because of those who were prepared to have it burn for only one day.”*2* Their action opened doors for future miracles. Not just the miracle of the oil. But the miracle of Jewish independence, and ultimately, the miracle of Jewish survival for the next two thousand years, until the present day.
Like the small vessel of oil that, overcoming all logic, refused to burn out, we the Jewish people, who have always been small, have stubbornly held on to our way of life no matter what opposition we faced. And here we are today. The miracle of Jewish survival is a product of our people’s willingness, through the generations, to step out boldly into the unknown even though the future was uncertain.
But we do not need to look only to the grand sweep of history to find this. We face it every day. How often do we not act because the outcome is uncertain, or because we think our actions are futile? For example: The persistence of poverty, in the poorest countries of the world as well as in our own city, is so overwhelming that it seems like no action that we take could make a dent. Many of us choose inaction, excusing ourselves with the knowledge that nothing we do will make an impact.
If there is a lesson from our tradition, and especially from Chanukkah, it is that we never know what the future will hold. Offering up an unknown outcome as an excuse for present complacency is just laziness. We have to be Maccabees, who responded to the opportunities that the moment presented.
Tonight, we light the first flame of Chanukkah. Fortunately, for us, Chanukkah candles come in boxes of 44, just enough to get us through eight days. But as we light that first flame, let us go back to the original Chanukkah, when the future was uncertain and the present demanded us to be courageous, and stand up for our ideals and our way of life. Let us light the first light.
*1*David Hartman, “Trusting in a New Beginning,” in A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration, ed. Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, p. 195.
*2*Ibid, p. 196.