Chanukah is an eight day celebration commemorating an ancient miracle.
There are many traditions attributed to Chanukah: Potato Latkes (pancake) or jelly donuts fried in oil, games of Dreidel (top), gifts of Chanukah Gelt (money) to the children and a plethora of stories to retell every year. Nevertheless, lighting the menorah candles is the core of the Chanukah observance.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Jewish Kingdom of Judea was conquered by the tyrannical Assyrian Greek Empire (138 BCE). As their military campaign was more ideological than territorial, they immediately endeavored to assimilate the local Jews to their culture.
When the Jews rejected this alternative approach to life, the Greek occupiers resorted to oppression. They outlawed traditional Jewish education, the observance of many rituals and seized control of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, suspending the daily service indefinitely.
A small group of Jews known as the Maccabees raised the battle cry and valiantly battled the enemy. They miraculously won the battle, decimated the occupying forces and an era of relative peace prevailed for close to a century.
The miraculous military victory is seemingly sufficiently meritorious to establish an annual celebration, but this is not the reason for the eight day festival of Chanukah.
Upon regaining control of the Temple, the Maccabees wanted to restore the daily service by kindling the Menorah (candelabra). However, no appropriate oil could be found in the immediate vicinity and procuring new oil would take eight days.
Mysteriously, they found one jug of oil that was usable for the Menorah, but there was enough for only one night. Despite the uncertainty of how they would light the Menorah for the next seven days until more oil arrived, the Maccabees filled the Menorah with the oil they had and kindled the flames in the proper fashion.
Lo and behold, this minimal amount of oil burned for eight days and nights. A clear sign that God was pleased with their self-sacrifice. It was the miracle of the long lasting oil that motivated the establishment of the eight day festival.
We celebrate by kindling flames for eight nights. On the anniversary of the discovery of the oil and the initial lighting of the Menorah we light one flame. The next night we light two and progressively add until we reach a total of eight flames on the final night that the miracle occurred.
While this Jewish festival is eight days, its message is universal and relevant year round.
Everyone has the power to introduce more goodness to our universe. There are diverse needs and various methods of addressing them, but the fact is that each individual has a unique opportunity to give to others and generate light and happiness. But when faced with a world of pervasive darkness, transforming it into brightness seems like a daunting and impossible task.
The sequence of lighting the Chanukah lights provides us the strategy for bringing light to every dark space. Start with one flame. Even a tiny bit of light can make a big difference and will grow exponentially.
Dealing with overwhelming challenges can be discouraging since the first step seems so inconsequential. The ancient miracle of Chanukah becomes our modern day miracle when we manage to take the first difficult step in the right direction.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.