As the sun sets this evening, we will be lighting the first candle of Chanukah, our festival of lights at the darkest time of the year. There is something about the first night of Chanukah that is intriguing to me. It all rests on a simple question: What was the miracle of the first day of Chanukah?
As any Jewish schoolchild could tell you, we light the Chanukah menorah in remembrance of the miracle of the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees following their war against the Seleucid Empire. (We sometimes call them "Syrians" or "Greeks." It's complicated). There was only one cruse of oil available to light the seven-branched Temple Menorah for the dedication, and the oil was only expected to last for one day.
So, as you may have guessed, the problem is that, looking at the story in its most simple form, there was no miracle on the first day. There was a quantity of oil that was supposed to burn for one day, and it did. There was nothing miraculous about that, just oil burning the way it was supposed to burn.
Move along folks. Nothing to see here.
Yet, we call the first day holy. We recite Hallel on the first day of Chanukah as if it were a full festival. We recite the prayer, Haneirot Halalu, in which we say:
We light these candle for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the victories that You made for our ancestors, in those days at this season, through Your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah these lights are holy. We are not to make ordinary use of them, but only to gaze upon them to give thanks and praise to Your Great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your redemption.
We say, "All eight days." We say, "For Your miracles." What is the miracle of the first day?
The miracle of the first day is that the Maccabees lit the Menorah at all. The miracle is that they knew that the single cruse of oil was supposed to burn out long before they could get more oil, and they lit it anyway. They didn't stop to question their obligation to restore sanctity to their community and to their lives. They didn't say, "Let's just wait until we get some more oil and light it then."
They had hope. They had the ability to look at a bad situation and still believe that it could become better. They believed that things would work out if only they had the courage to do what was right.
I talk to my kids about this. When they feel discouraged by difficult situations at school with their friends or when other kids are being mean to them, I tell them to have the courage to hope and try to make the situation better, even if they don't think it will work. I tell them that, when they are willing to hope and believe in what they know is right, it is far more likely to happen. Miracles don't happen to people who expect the worst. Miracles happen when we hope.
Have a wonderful first night of Chanukah tonight. Light that one little candle with its feeble, flickering flame and know that it represents a full, complete miracle. It is the miracle that, on one of the longest, darkest nights of the year, we light a small candle of hope—the hope that the days will soon get longer and our every darkness will turn into light. May it be so for you.
Other posts on this topic:
Season of Miracles, Season of Hope