Hanukkah is coming. You can feel it in the air.
Children sing, "I have a little dreidl," and Jews everywhere are polishing their menorahs, dusting off latke recipes, emerging from retail stores their arms laden with eight nights worth of gifts. Yet, amidst the clamor of it all, did you ever stop to wonder just what we're celebrating? What is the miracle of Hanukkah that our people have commemorated for eight nights each year, for generations beyond number?
According to the Book of Maccabees, Hanukkah marks the military victory of the Maccabees, a band of Jewish insurrectionists, who triumphed over mightier forces to reconsecrate the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem after the Assyrian enemy had polluted it and laid it to waste.
The Talmud, edited hundreds of years later, tells us that Hanukkah is the story of a miracle. When the Temple was reconsecrated, the Maccabees found only enough oil to keep the "Eternal Light" glowing for a single night. Yet by a miracle, the light burned brightly for a full eight days!
Did you ever stop to wonder what happened to the Maccabees, or the Temple, or the priesthood? And what happened after the eighth day?
The mighty Macabbees lasted only a few years in the priesthood. The reconsecrted temple stood but a paltry two hundred years. Since it was laid waste, over nineteen hundred years ago, most of our people has wandered the Earth.
Given the Jewish people's track record with miltary victories, maybe a single victory is a miracle. But given our accomplishments as a people, elevating military victories to the center of our history does not make a whole lot of sense. At least you have to admit, one victory every thousand years or so is not much to brag about. And the way the oil lasted? It's true that today we live in a time of deep appreciation for oil. Getting eight times the mileage might well seem a miracle. Don't get us wrong, we do not question the veracity of this legend, but we wonder, what is the real miracle of Hanukkah?
We do think that there is a miracle of Hanukkah to be celebrated. The real miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted eight days. The real miracle is that the celebration of the oil lasting eight days stands a good chance of lasting eight millennia. The miracle is that we light candles.
The story of the Jewish people is a stroy of light flourishing in darkness, flourishing against considerable odds. Four thousand years ago, if you looked at all the peoples -- the Hittites, the Perrizites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Canaanites -- all greater in numbers and military prowess, you might have questioned the sobriety of anyone who suggested that the one people who would survive (and flourish) would be this tiny band of nomads, these children of Israel, these Jews.
History tells us it's never been easy being Jewish. The number of people -- powerful ones -- who have hated us has been prohibitively large. The twentieth century saw the single most concerted effort to destroy any people, ever, and it was an effort perpetuated against the Jewish people. It failed. Today, a single generation removed from the Holocaust, our people has not only survived but flourished, celebrating a peoplehood that was born at Sinai.
Even today, it's still not easy being Jewish. There are no Hanukkah specials on television, no Hanukkah music piped into department stores. Come Bar/Bat mitzvah age, our children ask, "So what's the point, anyway?" And ours can seem a lonely miracle, indeed. Yet, we are a people that knows how to celebrate the light. Today, as we struggle against the forces of marginality and assimilation, we must seek in our collective wisdom a way to welcome the strangers among us. We must seek a way to make that welcome felt throughout the Jewish community. We founded Gesher to build a bridge of welcome and caring -- the same welcome and caring that has been the lifeblood of the Jewish community for generations.
No, the miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted eight days. The miracle - the real miracle of Hanukkah - is that from year to year we remember and extend the light of those original eight days to celebrate the miracle in our own time.