As far as miracles go, it‘s not God‘s most spectacular. One night‘s worth of oil lasting for eight? Give me the splitting of the Red Sea from the Book of Exodus, or the halting of the sunset from the Book of Joshua any day over oil with slightly higher than average staying power. Why does this miracle deserve its own holiday?
We human beings like to divide our world into neat, binary categories: right and wrong, liberal and conservative, kosher and treif. One such binary that we usually presume to exist is the natural and the supernatural. In this dichotomy, there is that which conforms to the laws of nature; the laws of chemistry, physics, and biology. Those phenomena we call “natural.” And then there is anything that transcends what is possible in nature; this we call “supernatural.” For example, the laws of biology and physics disable a human being from flying. It is natural for a human being not to fly. So a human being that somehow can fly would be doing something supernatural.
But what if we aren‘t correctly defining “natural”? What if the realm of the natural was more expansive than we usually presume? After all, scientists discover each and every day previously unknown aspects of our reality, some of which dramatically expand our concept of what is possible in nature. Indeed, the scientific pursuit itself – and with it our era‘s incredible advancement of technology – reminds us daily that what was presumed to be impossible for previous eras is now not only possible, but yesterday‘s news.
A modern school of thought called process theology embraces this idea, and argues there is no such thing as the “supernatural.” But rather than slinking into an admission that there is “only” the natural, process thought says that what we used to call “natural” we should, rather, call “Super, Natural!” It turns out that what is possible in nature is far less limited than we usually presume. The natural is actually pretty super.
I‘m not certain that the miracle of Hanukkah, the one with the oil, actually happened, any more than I am that the Red Sea split. But I think the rabbis of the Talmud, who first told the story of the Hanukkah miracle and insisted that it represents the holiday‘s raison d‘être, are making an important point: If you split the world into natural and supernatural, then oil lasting longer than expected is a small miracle. But if you don‘t divide reality that way, then oil lasting longer than expected is huge, a previously undiscovered expansion of the realm of the possible. It’s not a paltry version of a supernatural feat, but a surprising eruption of nature’s hidden power. It is “Super, Natural!” Or, at least, it symbolizes the reality of the “Super, Natural!”
That symbolism, I think, is what the rabbis were getting at. They were trying to point out to us that we have greater capacity, greater agency, than we usually assume or give ourselves credit for. We tend to think of ourselves, to paraphrase the spies in the Book of Numbers, as grasshoppers. We shrink in the face of adversity. We believe we are unworthy of love. We fail to speak out against oppression or work to alleviate injustice. We feel impotent and insignificant.
But a little bit of oil can sometimes do surprising things. And sometimes, an untrained band of priests and bookworms can defeat a far superior force on the battlefield. Our ancient rabbis insisted that far from being mere grasshoppers, we are actually closer to angels. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us “that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments.”
A recent iPhone ad sums it up perfectly: You‘re more powerful than you think. Hanukkah reminds us that we may not live in a world with supernatural phenomena. But we all have the capacity to be “Super, Natural!”