As you probably know, Chanukah celebrates a miracle. As part of the rededication ceremony of the ancient Temple that was desecrated by the Greeks, the Maccabees went to light the Menorah and were distraught to find that there was just a small amount of oil left – perhaps enough to light the Menorah for just one day. But a Nes Gadol Haya Sham – a great miracle happened there (the first Hebrew letters of this four-letter phrase are written on the dreidel) and that small amount of oil lasted for eight full days.
Today, many of us do not believe in miracles. We’ve prayed/hoped for them to happen in our lives and we’ve been let down. In the Torah, as the Israelites are fleeing Pharaoh, they come to the Red Sea. Realizing that they are trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the water before them, they begin crying out to God, asking for some sort of miraculous rescue. God’s response to our ancestors teaches us a great deal about Judaism’s take on miracles:
Then the Eternal One said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15)
Legend has it that one man, Nachshon, listened to God’s teaching and stepped into the Red Sea. He moved forward despite the tremendous obstacle that stood in his way. This simple act of faith, we are taught, led God to part the Red Sea.
The Maccabees didn’t call off their rededication ceremony because they feared the oil would run out. They moved forward with the ceremony and the oil lasted for eight nights. In the same way, despite the fact that they were significantly outnumbered by the Greek army, the Maccabees knew that the only way for Judaism to move forward was to defeat the Greeks. The odds were against them, but their faith in themselves led to a miraculous victory that makes it possible for us to light the fourth candle of Chanukah tonight.
Yesterday, on the second day of Chanukah, Cantor Debbie and I got to witness a real Chanukah miracle in our sanctuary. Mia Saifman (photographed with me and my Cantor, Debbie Hafetz in the featured image; no I did not wear that horrid Chanukah sweater at her service!) became a Bat Mitzvah. No, it’s not a miracle that Mia accomplished this goal. She worked hard so that she could stand before the Torah and tell the Jewish story. But as she took hold of our Holocaust scroll, a scroll that amazingly survived the horrors of WWII, I realized that all of us in the sanctuary were watching Judaism move forward. That 350-year-old scroll I handed to Mia could have all too easily have been destroyed 75 years ago. Mia and her parents could have easily decided that they didn’t have the time, energy, desire or resources for her to become a Bat Mitzvah. The people who joined us yesterday morning to read Torah, open the ark and take an aliyah, they could have easily declined these honors. But they were there, fully present, along with our incredible Bat Mitzvah and that amazing Torah scroll. And as Mia took it in her arms and walked around the sanctuary, we watched what didn’t have to be become a reality. We watched Judaism move forward not because God brought about a miracle – but because people came together and Mia wrapped her arms around the Torah.
As we light the fourth candle of Chanukah tonight, take a moment to appreciate that simply by lighting the candles we are taking part in an act of faith that not only brings the ancient story of the Maccabees into the present, it also hands it to the next generation as they gather around the Chanukiyah and say the blessings with us. Take a moment to appreciate that simply by lighting the candles, we are moving forward and making a miracle happen.