There really are miracles. Ask children too young to look cynically at birthday candles and bubble baths; ask adults old enough to appreciate the gift of each sunrise. I’m not talking about the sun standing still or the Red Sea parting, or even the odd case of spontaneous remission from deathly illness. The miracles I look for are not breaks in the natural order; they are simpler things, like human decency where we least expect it and everyday moments that evoke deep breaths of gratitude just for the privilege of being.
Like beauty, miracles are in the eye of the beholder. For people too jaded to see them, Hanukka supplies a crash course in beholding — through light.
Yes, light: a miracle in and of itself. The only constant, it is able to permeate not just air, but water and glass as well. We see only a fraction of the total light spectrum, but the part we see refracts gorgeously into the colors of the rainbow. Light heats our homes, warms our hearts, and shines our way forward.
Light runs deep in cultural consciousness and resonates through Jewish texts, not just as God’s first act of creation but a metaphor for angels and a “new light” that will shine on Zion in messianic times.
I love Hanukka, therefore. Forget the presents, the commercial kitsch, and even the Maccabean war that started it all. The rabbis who compiled our Bible omitted the books that describe the war; to the Gemara’s question, “What is Hanukka?,” the rabbis speak only of the miracle of light — the cruse of oil that burned longer than anyone had reason to anticipate.
Why, then, do we keep Hanukka? Not because we won a war: the Maccabees turned out to be as autocratic a dynasty as any of antiquity’s petty tyrannies. Hanukka is one thing: a celebration of light — the light of freedom, of wisdom, of hope, of promise, and of joy. Our candles are lit at night so people can see them, and on our window sills, so the light invades the dark l’farsomei nisa, “to publicize the miracle.”
How desperately we need reminders of miracles! The stock market is at record highs, but unemployment won’t go away. We cannot afford the wars we shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place, but have ample cause to worry about the world we are retreating from. At a time when “a thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,” Walt Whitman wondered, “must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled and sullen hymns of defeat?” He might have been speaking for us.
Had Whitman walked past Jewish homes at night, he would have found the insistent Jewish answer in the light of Hanukka candles. Miracles persist; the light shines even when all looks darkest and keeps on shining long after we are certain it should have been extinguished.