1st Night – Playing with Fire
During the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Holy Temple had been used for the worship of Greek gods. When the Maccabees captured it, they set about rededicating it for the service of the God of Israel. Central to the eight-day-long ceremony for rededicating the Temple was kindling the flames of the Menorah. Though the Maccabees only found sufficient oil for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight.
This much, most people know. The name of the holiday celebrating this event, Hanukkah, means “dedication,” and the primary ritual of the festival is lighting a Menorah. But what does fire have to do with dedicating the Temple in the first place?
Think about what fire is: pure energy. It has no borders or boundaries. It illuminates what is dark, warms what is cold, and melts what is frozen solid. It symbolizes passion and love, heart and soul, boundlessness and power. By fire’s light, we can see what was previously hidden to us and we can discover paths forward that were heretofore concealed.
Fire, from our tradition’s perspective, is the perfect symbol for the essence of religion, a force for wakefulness and purpose, hope and strength, compassion and boundary-crossing connection. No wonder God is described in the Torah as a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), why God appears to Abraham, Moses, and the Children of Israel as fire (Genesis 15:17, Exodus 3:2, 19:18), why God’s glory in the Tabernacle is described as fire (Ex. 40:38), and why we, to this day, symbolize God’s continuous presence in our synagogues with a ner tamid, an eternal flame.
In a brilliant recent TED talk
, my rabbi, Sharon Brous, taught that the rituals of our tradition were originally designed “to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place.” Our rites are supposed to help us remember the fire at the heart of our faith. The problem, she argued, is that after a few centuries, the reminder remains but the fire gets lost and forgotten:
That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.
When the Maccabees rededicated the Temple through lighting a flame, they were making a statement. Religion, ultimately, is not about beautiful buildings or the carefully choreographed ceremonies that take place in them. Those things are important, but only to the extent that they point us to the fire at religion’s heart. Without the fire, there is only idolatry, the veneration of hollow symbols. Which means that every so often, a new flame needs to be lit, redirecting our attention to the core of who we are called to be, and rededicating ourselves for what we are called to do. As we kindle our candles this Hanukkah, may their light and heat reinvigorate our spirits.
2nd Night – “A” Great Miracle?
The Hebrew letters on the dreidel – nun, gimmel, heh, and shin – are supposedly meant to stand for the words nes gadol hayah sham, “A great miracle happened there.” Presumably, this refers to the miracle of a day’s supply of oil lasting for eight days.
But, wait. If there was only enough oil to last for one day, then the Maccabees didn’t witness only one miracle. They witnessed a new miracle each day!
I wonder if they thought about it that way. My guess is they didn’t. After all, on the first night, there was no miracle. They expected the oil to burn for at least that long. Sure, there must have been much amazement, awe, and celebration on the second night (which we observe tonight). On that night they witnessed the truly unexpected, that one day’s oil lasted an additional day. But I’ll bet that, as each day passed, what was once miraculous became increasingly ordinary. Perhaps that’s why, today, we generally don’t think of Hanukkah as the story of several miracles, but rather, as the tale of “a great miracle.” Once we witness a miracle, it becomes hard to see that same event as miraculous when it occurs again.
Here’s how my rabbi, Bradley Shavit Artson, puts it
Miracles are when something you never thought possible happens, which means that it’s now possible. When a miracle occurs, your world expands by precisely the impact of that same miracle. Something that had been pure fantasy became real.
Once something extraordinary becomes ordinary, we cease to remember how extraordinary it was in the first place! As Rabbi Artson teaches, “Just because something happens often doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.”
That’s why we don’t only light one or two candles during Hanukkah. We light a candle each night, reminding us that the miracle was still miraculous each of the eight nights, despite the fact that the same miracle happened the night before.
Our Hanukkah observance thus becomes a reminder of the thousands of miracles we encounter each and every day but tend to regard as ordinary. Again, Rabbi Artson teaches:
Think of the miracle of a universe in which inorganic matter became organic matter, in which some of that organic matter complexified in such a way that it gained rudimentary consciousness and the ability to organize itself. Some of that self-organizing matter acquired the ability to replicate itself, creating another generation, and some of that self-organizing organic matter got smart enough to crawl out of the wet and onto the dry. And some of that matter on the dry climbed up a tree and developed binocular vision and prehensile thumbs. And then they climbed down from the trees, our distant ancestors, and here we are, a piece of the universe emerged into life; emerged into consciousness; emerged into awareness. Isn’t that a miracle within a miracle?
Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Caro, a Sixteenth Century Kabbalist, mystic, and legal authority, wrote that, while most people focus on the miracle of the Red Sea splitting, an insightful person would recognize that “the fact that those waters have existed for thousands of centuries [is] a greater testament to the light of their maker than any single magical moment could possibly be.” Sure, a sea splitting is miraculous. But the sea itself is also miracle! So, too, is the earth beneath your feet, the potatoes in your latkes, each and every breath. These may seem mundane, but they are, in fact, miraculous.
As we kindle the Hanukkah lights each night, we recall the miraculous in the mundane, the extraordinary in the ordinary, “Your miracles that are with us each and every day” (Siddur). A growing body of research indicates
that if we cultivate such awareness, if we encounter our world with a sense of awe, it will enable us to feel a greater sense of oneness with others, increase our generosity, and enhance our life satisfaction. It might even lead to world peace.
We don’t want for miracles in our world. We just don’t often recognize them when we see them. If this holiday helps us see the miracles that are with us always, we will have received a true Hanukkah gift.