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A Chanukah Miracle

Your Humble Blogger happened across a Chanukah midrash that I have not seen before, and I wanted to share it with y'all as Chanukah is about to begin. It comes to me from Yocheved Krimsky, the Rebbitzen of Young Israel in Stamford, CT, who transmits it from a line of Hasidic teachings. Just goes to show—tho' I dislike the Hasids and their ilk, they have good midrash.

Anyway, the question is: why do we celebrate Chanukah for eight days?

If you know anything about Chanukah at all, you answer that the eight days of Chanukah refer to the miracle of the oil lamp: when the Temple was rededicated, there was only enough oil to fuel the Eternal Light for one day, and it takes eight days to purify the olive oil and make it ready for the lamp. But lo! the lamp remained lit for eight days! Long enough for new oil to be prepared. And the Eternal Light stayed bright until, you know, the whole Temple was knocked down. But that's a different story.

No, the point is that the oil that was enough for one day lasted for eight days, and that is why Chanukah, too, lasts for eight days. Everybody knows that.

But the rabbis point out: there was enough oil for one day, and it lasted for eight. Surely the miracle lasted for seven days—you would expect the lamp to stay lit for one day, after all, and there was nothing unusual until that day was over. So why do we not celebrate Chanukah for seven days, the seven days that were an unexpected gift of light?

There are, of course, many different answers to that question. But the one that Ms. Krimsky prefers is that it is a miracle, really, that one day's oil will light a lamp for one day. The first day is a gift of the Divine as much as the other seven. It is true that the first day's gift—that a wick in olive oil will provide light—is an everyday sort of gift, ordinary and commonplace, while the gift of the other seven days is remarkable and rare. But that's why we need the extra day of Chanukah, to celebrate the gift that we otherwise forget.

But of course, there's more. Ms. Krimsky quotes the Old Man of Kelm (not to be confused with a Wise Man of Chelm) saying there is no difference between “natural oil” and “miracle oil”. That is, the One Who declared that oil burn for eight days is the One Who declares that oil burn for the ‘usual’ amount of time, as we were saying. But it seems to me that it is an astonishing thing to say that there is no difference. How could there be no difference between natural oil and miracle oil? But then, think about it: did the flame burn a different color when the miracle began? Did the oil start to smell like cinnamon and nutmeg? Did a chorus of heavenly angels suddenly cry out on one, high, glad, long, sighing note?

No.

I have never tried to imagine it before, that next day, not really. Presumably, having made the gutsy decision to light the oil that was there, they checked the next day. After twenty hours or so, maybe they peered in to the lamp, or even picked it up to heft its weight, and see how it was doing. Or perhaps not, quite likely they left it alone, not wanting to be immediate cause of the light going out. Keeping their distance from it, knowing it was almost done. A few more hours, and the light is still going. What do they think? Probably that it was a big jar, a little more full than they thought. Another few hours. Do they start to wonder, because of course the lamp never had gone out (except when it was dashed to the ground when the Greeks desecrated the Temple), whether they had perhaps estimated incorrectly how long that last bit at the bottom of the lamp would run out. And another hour. No change. And another. And another.

When did the miracle start? Was there one moment when it was a normal lamp burning normal oil, and then the next moment when it was a Chanukah Miracle? Did they miss that moment, the Hasmoneans, that change from the everyday miracle of combustion to the rare and remarkable miracle of Chanukah? When the flame was maintained by the present Will of the Divine, not by the ordinary laws of nature (which of course are also the Will of the Divine)?

I'm sure they missed it. I'm sure I miss it, every time it happens. You have to miss it. It's meant to be missed. Even if you are clever enough to walk between the raindrops without getting wet, are you clever enough to look at the raindrops and say “That raindrop is due to the cycle of evaporation and condensation, and that raindrop was created by the present Will of the Divine”?

So, as I light the candles tonight, I will think: perhaps this is when the Chanukah miracle happened. And as I light three candles tomorrow night, I will think: perhaps this is when the Chanukah miracle happened. Or now. Or maybe now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

A wise and moving essay, marred only by the fact that I am now envisioning your children saying "Did the Chanukah miracle happen yet? How 'bout now? How 'bout now? How 'bout now?" for approximately eight days straight.

Of course, if this was your intention, then you double win.


That is really beautiful.


That is awesome, V. Thank you so much for sharing that.


This is lovely; thank you for writing and posting it.


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