Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Natural Miracles of Chanukah

There are two miracles that we are celebrating on Chanukah. The first is the victory of the Jews (the few) against the Syrian-Greeks (the many). The second miracle is that the oil flame that was supposed to only last one day lasted eight days.

The battle of the Maccabees/Hasmoneans occurred only after push came to shove. In other words, Jews are relatively easy going people. Assimilation of the Jews into Hellenistic philosophies and actions had been going on for quite a while before we see the Hasmonean uprising. Jewish males were participating in athletic games, and in the Greek tradition that means they were wearing their birthday suits. In order not to "look" Jewish there are records of these men attempting to "reverse" (I don't know how, and I'm not sure I want to) their brit milah (circumcision). But there came a breaking point.

While Antiochus Epiphanes declared most Jewish actions illegal, a few specific ones were:
* Circumcision
* Shabbat observance
* Torah study
* Keeping kosher
* Celebration of Rosh Chodesh/the new Jewish month

These five things are very basic to Judaism. These are the activities that identify us as Jews. It seems to me that once Antiochus began making these things not a matter of preference, but rather a dictate of law - Jews could no longer stand for the intrusion into their lives leading us to the battles we fought against the Greeks.

What's important to think about is that the Jews (I believe) did not necessarily expect to win. It was a lopsided fight - the few against the many. Some could argue that guerrilla warfare is effective enough to beat experienced armies. This may be true - but there are certainly no guarantees, especially when the 'few' are farmers and the 'many' are professional soldiers. When Mattityahu (Mattathius) shouted 'Me L'Shem A'lai' - 'Who is with G-d come with me!' He was making a clear declaration of purpose at the very outset of the war.

When Mattityahu and Judah (his son) began the rebellion there were no longer any prophets around to let them know that they would win. They prayed to G-d and went to battle and ultimately they were successful. Why do we count this as a miracle?

After liberating the Holy Temple/Bait HaMikdash from the Greeks, the Maccabees cleaned it out and re-dedicated it to the service of G-d. This is where we get the name Chanukah from. Chanukah means dedication. As they were cleaning they were looking for a jars of purified oil in order to light the 7 branched Menorah that was housed in the Temple. They found one small jug that would only last one day, never assuming anything different would happen. As we know, that small jug lasted eight days, enough time to allow the Maccabees to make more oil.

What I find fascinating in both these instances is that the Maccabees never expected a miracle to happen on their behalf. They went to battle with the Greeks because it was the right thing to do, I'm sure hoping to win but not necessarily expecting it. The same for lighting the menorah. There was no expectation for the oil to last more than the one day that it was supposed to.

There are times that we wish G-d would part the clouds above our heads and say "Hey! I'm here!" and tell us the right direction to go. However, this isn't an option since the end of the Prophetic Era. We don't have easy access to G-d in that way.

I think that we can sometimes relate to the miracles of Chanukah more than we can the open miracles of the Torah. We go about our lives doing the best we can, doing what we know is right. We can take away from Chanukah is that G-d is there for us even in the natural events in our lives. Perhaps not performing the open miracle of the oil burning for eight days - but definitely in the smaller, hidden miracles of the Chanukah battles, since we still count the victories of the few against the many as a miracle, albeit not an open one.

We should keep in mind that G-d is there for us at all points in our lives - when we feel close and when we don't. Chanukah can be there to remind us that while we do not always see G-d's open hand, we know that He's there in a hidden way supporting us.

Chag Sameach! Happy Chanukah!

Chanukah 5770 (Last year's article)

A few technical notes about setting up the menorah: (Check this video for help: Animated Menorah)

On the first night, the light is placed on the right side of the menorah, and each subsequent night lights are added to its left. The newly added light is always lit first and then the lighting goes from left to right.

The blessings are:
* Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
* Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.

The next blessing is only recited on the first night, or on the first occasion that person lights a menorah during the holiday of Chanukah:
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to read this occasion.

After lighting this is said:
We kindle these lights [to commemorate] the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our forefathers, in those days at this time, through Your holy Kohanim. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make us of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your salvation.

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