At Hanukkah time we are always talking about miracles – whether of military victory or flames that burned for 8 days rather than one. We can sometimes forget the smaller miracles that are made visible in the different light that candles cast.
Phreddy (my husband) recently reminded me that it is the moonless nights that allow us to see the most stars. His comment elucidated for me how special it has been to gaze into the soft light of the menorah these past few days. In Judaism we have another practice that involves a candle; checking for chametz before Passover. The search for chametz is to be done exclusively by candlelight, not by torch or by the light of the moon. Only a single flame will do.
The Rabbis of the Talmud discussed what is so special about a candle, “You can hold a candle up in front of you, they say, while a torch’s light is so great that you cannot hold the torch up close to you and still be able to look beyond it.” It is the gentle glow of a candle which illuminates just enough that we can see what lies just beyond our vision, be that as literal as hametz or as ethereal as a new perspective.
My blessing for us this holiday season is that the Hanukkah lights remind us of the miracle of seeing with new eyes. May it be a season of discovery.
MIRACLES GREAT AND SMALL
There is a story in the Talmud (avodah zarah 8a) about Adam ha Rishon – the first human – who experiences the first ever documented case of seasonal affect disorder. As Adam watched the days grow shorter and shorter, he began to panic, imagining that the world was coming to an end. With each successive day, with each decrease in light, he felt more and more sure that the world he knew was over. According to the story, he did something we all might be likely to do… he blamed himself. אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו “Woe is me!!” he said, “Perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will return to chaos and disorder…”
But the world did not come to an end, and the impending darkness was not Adam’s fault. Rather, after coming to the darkest point in the year, the winter solstice, the days slowly began to stretch themselves back out. And Adam began to realize that life was not over, rather, he was experiencing nature’s rhythms for the first time.
I relate to Adam ha Rishon’s story, because I too am prone to fear and blame when I feel like I am facing forces too great to understand, forces that seem to be beyond my control. So it was striking to me when I read this week’s parsha, Miketz, and saw a story that includes dire warnings about the future, but instead of fear and blame, we see the hero, Joseph, move swiftly into action.
Joseph is called up from prison as a last-ditch effort to interpret a dream of Pharaoh’s that has bewildered all the soothesayers of Egypt. Joseph – with careful attribution of his interpretations to God – informs Pharaoh that his dreams are a message of seven years of famine that will decimate Egypt after seven years of plenty. Joseph tells Pharaoh that survival will be entirely dependent on Egypt’s willingness/ability to harness the plenty of the next 7 years so that they will last through the famine. In other words, the produce of 7 years will have to last for 14.
Joseph’s ability to save Egypt from the famine reads like a remarkable example of effective governance. To imagine a leader who is visionary enough to coordinate this massive public work, without any noted uprisings, leaves me wondering, “how exactly did he do it??” The text is quite ambiguous on that matter. It merely states: וַיִּקְבֹּ֞ץ אֶת־כָּל־אֹ֣כֶל שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֗ים “And he gathered all the food of the seven years [of plenty].”
The medieval rabbinic commentators were also curious about how Joseph managed to accomplish this feat, and so they tried to imagine the details of his administration. While Ibn Ezra mused that all the food must mean “all that was possible to gather without causing the people to starve,” seemingly allowing the people to eat what they determine themselves to need and collecting the rest, Ramban imagined 14 years of rations, saying “It appears to me to be correct that Joseph gathered all food under his control, and he gave enough of it every year for sustenance to the Egyptians, so that they should not squander it.”
Each of these visions of administration still sit squarely in the realm of how a single leader or government manages for the future. While I do think there is a lesson in here about civic engagement, good leadership, and government accountability, I also want to push a step beyond the Joseph story. I’m not convinced that the people of Egypt who weren’t in control themselves felt any less scared and confused than Adam ha Rishon as they experienced the famine.
So I wanted to look to another story for a paradigm that would get us beyond these stories of disempowered individuals, and for that I turned to the rabbi’s story of Hanukkah. The Jews living under the Greeks were so at odds with their government that a faction of guerrilla Jewish fighters, the Macabees, was on the rise. The majority of the Jewish people wanted to accept their subordination and avoid trouble with their rulers, and resented the Macabees for stirring up dissent. The band of Macabees could have thrown their hands up in the air and said that there was no hope for the future. Yet they battled and prevailed, and when they entered the defiled temple, they hoped to restore it to it’s proper glory. Finding only a single cruze of oil, they could have decided not to rededicate the temple at all, feeling overwhelmed by the inadequacy of their offering. Rather, they believed in the power of this small act. They understood that even great miracles are made up of bravery, courage, and faith in the face of the unknown. Their story reminds me that miracles are actually rooted in our own actions, often at times when changing the tide feels impossible.
May we each remember that in our small acts, we have the capacity to make miracles.