What Was the Miracle of Chanuka??
By Avi Lazerson
Almost everyone is familiar with the story of the miracle of Chanukah, that the Hasmoniam found a vial of pure oil with the seal of the High Priest with just enough oil to light for one day, and miraculously it provided enough oil for eight days.
What most people do not realize is the simple question being that if there was enough oil for one day, then the miracle should only be for seven days. The oil burning on the first night was sufficient to last for one day - if so, what miracle occurred on this first day?
Some have answered this obvious question by saying that the fact that after the Greeks had done such a thorough job of defiling all of the oils used in the Temple, that merely finding this vial intact with the High Priest's seal was a miracle.
The only difficulty with this answer is that there is a large difference between the miracle of the first night, finding the vial, and the miracles of the subsequent nights, the burning of the oil beyond its natural limit in a supernatural fashion. More so, we can say the first miracle, finding the vial, is not a miracle, but just a chance occurrence. How many times does it happen to each of us that we find something or that we overlook something? This type of miracle is open to dispute - many can say that this is not a miracle but a chance happening. This vial happened to be one that the Greeks by chance did not see.
The second type of miracle, the extended burning of oil, way beyond any reasonable expectations can not be seen as a natural occurrence. This was an open and un-refutable act of divine intervention and suspension of the laws of nature - a true miracle by every one's standards.
This, therefore, requires an explanation as to why G-d who chose to perform a miracle, and chose to perform it in this manner. The beginning of the miracle of Chanukah is shrouded in the dressings of nature and the continuation of the miracle is an open and obvious form of divine intercession. More so, if G-d desired that there be a miracle, it should have been that it be a completely undeniable miracle from the beginning to the end (such as the vial of oil descending from the heavens). Conversely if the will of G-d was that the miracle should take place within the trappings of nature, then why did He not arrange that eight vials of oil be discovered instead of only one?
This could be explained through a famous Chassidic story which concerns the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneor Zalman, who was arrested after the enemies of the Chassidic movement claimed to the Russian authorities that he was acting against the interests of the Russian government.
As he was being taken to prison, he was ferried across a river at night. It so happened that Rabbi Shneor Zalman had not recited the blessings on the new moon. On the small raft he saw the moon and realized that it was time to recite this blessing. Now this blessing is recited standing up. Rabbi Shneor Zalman requested from the boatman who was ferrying him across the river to stop for a moment in order that he could stand up to recite the blessing on the new moon.
The boatman refused and kept paddling. After several requests and several refusals, Rabbi Shneor Zalman warned the boatman that the boat would stop. The boatman paid no attention to the warning. Suddenly the boat suddenly "froze" in the middle of the wide river. No amount of paddling availed; the boat would not move. The boatman realized that heaven had taken the side of his illustrious prisoner. He turned to Rabbi Shneor Zalman and in fright pleaded with him to intercede in heaven to free the boat.
Rabbi Shneor Zalman obliged the boatman's request and the boat suddenly started to move again. Then Rabbi Shneor Zalman again requested from the boatman to stop for just a moment to allow him to stand to recite the blessings on the new moon. This time the boatman acquiesced to his request and with the aid of his paddles held the boat motionless while Rabbi Shneor Zalman stood and recited the blessings.
When he finished, he sat down and motioned to the boatman to continue.
This story raises a very obvious question. If Rabbi Shneor Zalman had the power to cause the boat to stand still in the middle of the waters, why did he not take advantage of the boatman's inability to move the boat by standing up and reciting his blessings? Why did he "release" the boat and only afterwards ask the boatman to stop? What did he gain by having the boatman stop the boat that he could not have achieved when heaven miraculously stopped the boat for him to make the blessing?
The answer is rather clear. The obligation to perform the mitzvoth (divine commandments) must be done through and with-in the framework of nature. Therefore Rabbi Shneor Zalman saw it necessary that the boatman should stop the raft by his own desire - even though the circumstances that frightened the boatman to stop the raft were supernatural.
From this story we can begin to understand the divine purposes in the manner of the miracle of Chanukah.
The Hasmonians were under the assumption that there was no pure oil left in the Temple. They could have used impure oil to re-light the menorah in the Temple, since such under circumstances as this, Jewish law is clear that it would have been permitted. Had they not found this vial of pure oil, certainly they would have begun to light the menorah in the Temple with defiled oil until they could either acquire or manufacture pure oil.
Never the less, we see from this episode the love of G-d for the Jewish people. He caused them to find the vial of pure oil in order to enable them to be able to begin again the service in the Temple with purity and with-in the fame work of nature.
Therefore, the miracle of the first day of Chanukah begins with a "chance" finding of the vial of pure oil and not receiving a vial from a miraculous source such as descending from heaven. This is to emphasis that performance of mitzvoth must be performed only with in the framework of nature.
Further, we may note from this that the miracle of Chanukah stresses to us the central importance of working with in the laws of nature. This is because the creation of the world and nature was done in a manner that permitted the world to be a vessel for the performance of G-d's mitzvoth.
The reason is that the nature of the world is to aid the Jewish people in their learning Torah and performing mitzvoth. This becomes clearer when we realize that the name "Elokim" (which is the numerical equivalent in Hebrew of "the nature") is synonymous with nature. Now we can understand the importance of working "with-in" the confines of the world and not to seek to isolate ourselves from the world.
The natural state of the world is that of concealment and hiddeness, meaning that G-d can not be seen clearly with in the confines of this world. Similarly, during the time of the Greek domination of Israel and the Temple, when they tried to stop us from performing mitzvoth and learning Torah, was a very dark period in our history, underscoring the absence of G-d in our midst. Their culture became the manifold culture in Israel and the situation became very bleak for those who only wanted to serve G-d.
Never the less, the small group of Hasmonaim battled in a "natural war" against giant Greek armies and culture and emerged victorious. Even more so, nature is a venue for the performance of mitzvoth as exemplified both through the "finding" of the vial of pure oil and only through our use of natural strengths gave us G-d's granting the miraculous burning of the Chanukah menorah.
This generalization that mitzvoth must be performed with in the framework of nature not only applies to the mitzvah, but also to those aspects of beautifying the mitzvoth. We see this from the fact that they could have used defiled oil, but G-d led them to use pure oil.
This applies to all aspects of life, that one must strive to live life with in the boundary of nature and not look for miracles. Miracles come only as a divine intervention from G-d, but only after we have begun our work by using means with in nature.
Going even deeper into this, we must comprehend that which the mystics tell us that when G-d created the world, pure sparks of holiness fell down into this world from very high and lofty levels. Our performance of mitzvoth, so the mystics tell us, releases these holy sparks.
Had we been tempted to perform mitzvoth not with-in nature, (i.e. with supernatural powers or via a miracle,) we would not be able to free these holy sparks to ascend to heaven once again.
All of this we learn from Chanukah!
from the December 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine