R. Noa Kushner // Hanukkah 5778
Rabbi David Hartman, z”l asks a good question:
Why is Hanukkah 8 days?
That is, if the miracle was that the oil lasted for seven but they only had enough oil for one day, isn’t it true that you should not call the first day a miracle?
As if you had enough gas to get to Burlingame but made it to Santa Rosa, is the part of the trip that gets you to Burlingame still miraculous?
Yes, says Hartman.
Because the real miracle is that even seeing that they did not have enough, they lit it anyway.
So easy, he teaches, not to try, to rationalize that we know that whatever it is will not succeed -- so why bother. There is no point in making the effort.
So the miracle is when, in spite of this, we try.
In his words: “Hanukkah teaches that we should pour infinite yearnings into small vessels…That only lamps that are lit can burn beyond their anticipated life span.” (R. David Hartman, A Different Light, edited by Zion and Spectre, p. 195).
Such a beautiful idea.
And it made me consider that in order to try to light that one flask of oil
to make that holy light,
Even before they tried, the Maccabees also had to be willing to go back to the desecrated temple.
They had to go to the hardest place, the place that would be the most painful to see.
They had to go back to where they had lost something precious.
Maybe they went back even to see their own part in the destruction, after all they went back right after a war in which they took part.
So maybe we could also say that another requisite for hanukkah miracle is a willingness to show up, to return to the scene, even to experience sorrow, desolation, and heartache.
Because we cannot see light in perfect light can we? We can only see light where there’s darkness. That is, in places where it is hard to see,
That’s where the light shines.
Not only did they return to the scene, but we know in Talmud it says that before they found the cruz / flask of oil, they found oil they couldn’t use, in fact, no other oil was usable, everything was tainted (Shabbat 21:b).
Which makes us wonder: How many times did they find some oil only to realize they could not use it?
How many times were they tempted to use something that was not suitable, means that were not pure?
How many times did they just want to throw in the towel and use the bad stuff? How many times did they think, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” you know what I mean?
Because sometimes, when you are crawling around in the darkness, and you find something or someone that looks like what you need,
Even if you know it won’t work,
Sometimes we are tempted to pretend it will work, to force something to fit that does not fit, aren’t we all tempted like that?
We can be tempted in lowly times to behave in a lowly manner, to let ourselves be dragged down.
To respond with spite or pettiness or out of fear,
To just let the ends justify the means.
But we realize from this story with this strange little miracle,
That if they had accepted the oil that was unfit,
If they had tried to make holy light in way that was not holy,
Then there would have been no miracle at all.
Because there was PLENTY of corrupted stuff lying around (always is)/
Enough I imagine for 17 hundred days of Hanukkah.
If they had accepted even some of it,
It would have just burned and that would be that.
And then no one would ever see or know that it was possible that a little bit of pure light could outlast everyone’s expectations,
Could change what is possible in the world.
Hanukkah is not discussed at all in Torah, barely mentioned in the sources.
And I looked and the Talmud gives us exactly one verb to describe everything that happened between the time when the Maccabees returned to the Temple and when they finally found the right oil.
The verb is Livdok / To search.
And I’m thinking that “To search” is the process of not accepting just what is in front of us, but instead expecting more, demanding more, and so we learn this is the key verb of Hanukkah.
So maybe we can imagine this year that Hanukkah is the holiday of searching and finding.
Search and rescue.
Because in these times, it can be easy to be confused between the real lights and the fakes, right?In fact R. Heschel says we are shrinking from the real light.
He says that we have become afraid to admit what we really believe and love and admire,
We have become afraid to admit that everyone is made in the image of God (or the force or the universe).
We have become afraid to admit that we depend on one another, that we are responsible for one another.
Instead, we have accepted suspicion and divisiveness as a substitute for that belief and the obligation that would flow from it --
But suspicion and divisiveness and self protection is like the oil that is unfit,
There is plenty around but it won’t do the job.
It won’t protect us or make our society whole. (Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 7-8.)
See we don’t have to settle for a tax code that fails to take responsibility to protect the vulnerable and the weak among us.
We don’t have to settle for likes and popularity and winning when we could have relationships and arguments and larger moral frameworks we all work to uphold.
We don’t have to settle for a tarnished symbolic capitol when the holy city of Jerusalem deserves, if not perfect peace, then at least a way for our loved ones and all people there to live with dignity and in freedom.
See Hanukkah reminds us that miracles are not imaginary!
On the dreidel: it says neis gadol hayah sham / a great miracle happened there because the idea is that one could happen here, too.
And in the blessing we just said: we sang about the miracles that happened in the time of our ancestors and in OUR TIME, too, bazman ha zeh, this very time right now.
See, miracles are not imaginary.
And we don’t have to accept whatever ersatz, stand-in, flimsy, wanna-be miracle whip, “miracles” just because they are presented as the real thing.
AND it goes without saying that when we find the good stuff, the pure oil, the real light, it will never seem like enough.
Of course it is not enough!
When we find that pure light (that real moment of exchange with another person, the politician who acts with total moral courage, that moment in a state called Alabama),
Whenever we find that small bit of light, we will always feel like asking ourselves: This is it? Isn’t there more? There is so much of the junky stuff, how can that be all?
And all of a sudden, we are so thirsty for this real light, it seems there is not enough,
But that thirst makes us who we are, that’s what this Jewish thing means – to be thirsty for the real light, the possibility of a true miracle.
So that is when we have to remember our story and (remind one another, tell one another this story), the story about the strange little miracle recorded by the rabbis: That once there was not enough, we even knew there was not enough and yet, somehow, there was enough and there is enough.
The Sfat emet teaches,
There is enough.
There is enough light within us.
Even now when many of us feel our lights are sputtering, going out
From the weight of the world, from everything,
Sfat Emet teaches even now there is enough.
We are just still learning how to find it, how to light it
And so the Hanukkah candles are a gift from heaven, like ancient flashlights, so that we can search out these real lights hidden within each of us,
And in each another,
And when we see evidence of them, faint but unmistakable, out in the world. (Sfat Emet 1:198).