I walked into the preschool classroom wondering how I was going to teach the concept of miracles. I asked the three and four year olds if they had ever planted an ugly brown seed and watched it grow into a beautiful flower. Most of them answered yes but I got the feeling that’s just what they expected it to do – no vision of a miracle there. So, then I performed a few magic tricks. And, their mouths dropped and their faces lit up.
“It’s a miracle,” I proclaimed, “that was not supposed to happen.” They all agreed. And, while magic has secret tricks to explain how it works, true miracles do not. Miracles are rampant within Jewish tradition. There are many things that have occurred in our history that ‘could not possibly be’. Chanukah is no exception, and it is our holiday celebrating miracles.
The first miracle being that the small army led by Judah Maccabee overcame the large and powerful army of Syrians to take back the Holy Temple. The second miracle occurred after they reclaimed the Holy Temple. Much work went into cleaning the Temple and preparing it for rededication. Idols were cleared out. Ritual objects were repaired and put back in place. When it was time to light the Menorah, they found only enough oil to last for one day. A miracle took place and the oil lasted for eight days while they prepared new oil.
Miracles are probably just as prevalent today but are delivered in different ways and, most likely, we do not have our eyes open wide enough to receive them. Chanukah is a time for remembering miracles in our past, embracing miracles in our present and hoping for miracles in our future.
It was Judah’s father, Mattiyahu, who encouraged Judah and his brothers to continue fighting against the Syrians. Maccabee was a nickname given to Judah through the combination of four Hebrew words: Mi Kamocha Ba’elim A…d’noi meaning who is like You, Oh G-d? Judah’s followers became known as the Maccabees. With the great numbers in the Syrian army, the Maccabees thought they were fighting to their deaths to protect their Holy Temple. They were probably just as surprised – if not more so – as the Syrians when they won battle after battle.
The word Chanukah means “rededication”, and our celebration represents the rededication that took place when the Maccabees won back the Holy Temple. In present time, it is the perfect moment for Jews to devote themselves anew to Judaism and its traditions.
There is a place for doughnuts and latkes at the Chanukah celebration, and – believe it or not - there is a deeper meaning to them than merely filling our bellies with yummy treats. The miracle of the oil is accentuated during this holiday by eating foods fried in oil.
Even the dreidel has deeper symbolism beyond game playing and fun. During Syrian rule, the Jews were not allowed to worship or study Torah. The children would study in secret and, if patrolmen approached, they would pull out their dreidels and pretend to play games.
Today, dreidels outside of Israel have four letters representing Nes, Gadol, Hayah, Sham - A great miracle happened there. In Israel, the letters represent Nes Gadol Hayah Po - A great miracle happened here.
While an important holiday in the Jewish year, it is interesting to note that Chanukah is not a holiday found in the Torah. It is a holiday established by our great sages. The display of the menorahs in our windows is not a competitive edge with Christmas. The public display of “our great miracle” was also issued by ancient rabbis.
Chanukah is about our presence and not the presents. It is a time of year to dig deep into our roots and think about why we do what we do, what it means and how we can ensure it continues on with future generations.