Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday celebrating the Jewish victory over their Syrian-Greek oppressors during the Second Temple period and commemorating the miracle of oil that accompanied the rededication of the Temple following the victory. The miracle occurred when a small amount of oil, enough to last for only one night, burned for eight straight nights. As a result, we light candles on each of the eight nights of the holiday.
There is a well-known question asked by the commentators regarding the lighting of the candles. We light candles and recite blessings over the miracles performed for our ancestors for all eight nights. However, the miracle of oil was that a single day’s supply of oil miraculously lasted for eight days. This suggests that the miraculous element of the burning was only from the second day onwards. If that’s true, we should only celebrate for seven days since the burning on the first day was not supernatural. Why do we celebrate for eight days? What miracle are we commemorating on the first day of the holiday?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers a profound interpretation. The true miracle of the first day was not the oil burning longer than it should have, but rather, the discovery of the oil itself. Amidst the chaos and desecration inflicted upon the Temple by the Greeks, the Maccabees found a single container of oil, unblemished and sealed. This discovery was against all odds, a beacon of purity in a landscape of destruction.
But this miracle was not just about the physical finding of the oil; it was about the Maccabees’ unwavering faith. They searched amidst ruin, holding onto the belief that something sacred had endured. This act of searching, driven by faith, was the first night’s true miracle – the miracle of faith itself. It was the faith that, even in the bleakest of circumstances, a spark remains from which we can reignite the flame of hope and renewal.
This lesson extends far beyond Hanukkah, touching the core of Jewish resilience throughout history. In times when despair could have easily taken hold – the destruction of the Temples, the horrors of the Crusades, the Spanish Expulsion, the pogroms, and the Holocaust – the Jewish people did not succumb to despair. Instead, like the Maccabees, they searched through the ruins and found the means to rebuild and rekindle. They lit a light unparalleled in history, a testament to the indomitable human spirit that refuses to be defeated by tragedy.
In this reflection by Rabbi Sacks, we find a powerful message of hope and resilience. The miracle of Hanukkah, and indeed of Jewish history, is not just in the overtly supernatural, but in the extraordinary capacity of faith to guide us through darkness, enabling us to find that which allows us to begin anew.
The October 7 massacre by Hamas stands as a stark reminder of the darkness that still lurks in the world. It was a day when our people were tortured and murdered and peace was shattered by the echoes of violence. In the face of this tragedy, the words of Rabbi Sacks become ever more relevant. They remind us that even in the depths of despair, our spirit and faith can guide us. They teach us that resilience is not just about enduring pain but also about finding the strength to rebuild and renew.
As we stand in the aftermath of this tragedy, we must remember that we are not defined by the adversities we face but by how we rise above them. Jewish history is a narrative replete with instances of unfathomable suffering, yet, remarkably, it is also a narrative of unyielding hope and renewal. The Jewish people, through centuries of perseverance, have shown the world that out of the depths of darkness can come the most profound light.
Even amidst the shadows cast by the October 7 massacre, our spirit remains unbroken. We will survive this, not just as a testament to our endurance, but as a beacon of hope and light for the world. Our resilience, rooted in faith and unity, will continue to guide us towards a future of peace and harmony. This is the miracle of the first night of Hanukkah.