Finding Our Jug of Oil
One of the two main miracles celebrated on Chanukah, is the discovery of the jug of oil that burned for eight days instead of just one (the other being the victory of the few over the many).
Like every aspect of Torah and our sacred tradition, this is not just a historic tale from the Temple era, but something that should inspire us even today, more than 2100 years after these events.
So I want to share something meaningful I learned that you may enjoy as well.
It starts with the Greeks. Their fight against the Jews wasn’t primarily one of military conquest. Nor was it only the attempt to stop the Jews from practicing their traditions. In fact, the Greeks were even fine if we studied Torah. But they wanted us to treat it as any human wisdom. Not G-d’s wisdom. They could even accept Jews lighting the Menorah. After all, every culture has its own unique practices. What they would not accept however, was our insistence that these were G-d given and sacred acts, and that the Menorah needed to be kindled with a special "holy" oil.
So the Greeks “defiled” the oil supplies in the Temple, and when the Jews returned to Jerusalem they couldn’t find any pure oil left. Finally after an exhaustive search, we uncovered one jug of oil that remained untouched, holy and pure. This was used to begin rekindling the Menorah.
In our personal lives too, we each have that one jug of oil that remains constantly pure. Despite the ups and downs of life, the spiritual, emotional and material challenges we face, and no matter how distant and despondent we may feel at times - we will always have that jug of oil, the essence of our soul, which remains holy, connected and sacred.
It's always there. Sometimes we just need to find it and ignite it. As soon as we do, we can rekindle our menorah, and begin shining brightly again.
Two of the most heartwarming letters I got for Chanukah really drove home this message for me, so I'll share some of them here: "...I also wanted to thank you for the Menorah. We lit it tonight. I haven't practiced in more than 30 years..." and "...this Hanukkah is very special, it’s the first one that my husband has ever observed. I can never get through the blessings without tears for speaking Hebrew moves me in a way that I can’t explain. Thank you Rabbi Alperowitz for helping us observe Hanukkah this year. You have blessed us in a way I can’t express."
Chanukah: Then and Now
As we prepare to celebrate our seventh Chanukah in South Dakota, I’m thinking about the significance of “seven.” In Judaism, the number seven symbolizes a complete cycle; there are seven days in a week, and the Biblical Sabbatical year is observed every seventh year. Immediately after the seventh comes the eighth, which must always spur us to increased activity and vibrancy.
This just gives us all more to be thankful for as we celebrate Chanukah this year, and look to an even brighter future of increased Jewish knowledge and pride in our beautiful state.
When we look at the story of Chanukah, we realize that the main thrust of Chanukah was not about the physical persecution of the Jews, but of the banning of our faith observances.
The Greeks were puzzled by the Jews insistence that the Torah was given by G-d, and that therefore its instructions are holy and eternal. If you want to live with cultural traditions that your ancestors brought along from a desert, the Greeks reasoned, wonderful, but please don’t attribute all this holiness, spirituality and G-dliness to it.
Had the Jews simply agreed to forgo the Shabbat, Brit, Kosher, Family Purity, and modify some of the temple observances to include aspects foreign to the tradition, the Greeks would have left us alone, and everyone would have lived happily ever after.
But that would not have been Judaism.
So thankfully, the Macabbees stood up and proudly said no. Although they were initially a small minority, as even many Jews succumbed to the Hellenistic ways, this small group prevailed.
They showed that to be victorious, you don’t need many, you don’t need might. You need to be right, and eventually you will prevail and others will join you. It was a victory of right over wrong, of light over the dark. And thanks to those brave people, we have Judaism today as we did back then, and we have Chanukah to celebrate.
Just like the Maccabees of old, the best way we can ensure our children and grandchildren will be Jewish, the way our ancestors were, is for us to be educated about who we are. When we know who we are, we are also more likely to be proud of who we are.
This year, the Menorah lights will shine extra brightly across South Dakota, with increased Jewish pride and celebration, as we have provided a menorah and candles to every Jewish home in need of one around the state. This of course is in addition to the many, many homes who light the candles each night, and the beautiful public displays of menorahs in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City.
Numerous people have told me how meaningful it is for them when they see the large public menorahs on display. For Jewish people it is a symbol of our faith and tradition, for the broader community it is a universal symbol of American freedom, and an expression of the beautiful diversity and how welcome we are in our beloved city and state.
That Last Drop of Oil
There is so much beauty to this holiday. Children playing dreidel, parents giving Chanukah gelt, the special feeling of pride when seeing a large menorah in public, and of course families sitting around the Menorah listening to the messages the candles tell us.
Like every aspect of Torah and our sacred tradition, the story of Chanukah is not just something of the past. Its lessons and message are to be relived anew each year. The story of Chanukah brings with it so many wonderful lessons and authentic inspiration for our life today.
So I want to share one story the Chanukah candles told me, and perhaps as you light your Menorah this year, they will tell you the same.
It starts with the Greeks and their battle against the Jews. Their fight wasn’t primarily one of military conquest. Nor was it only the attempt to stop the Jews from practising their traditions. In fact, the Greeks were fine if we studied Torah. But they wanted us to treat it as any human wisdom. Not G-d’s wisdom. They could even accept the Jews lighting the Menorah. After all, every culture had its own unique practices. But they could not accept our insistence that these were G-d given and sacred acts, and that the Menorah needed to be kindled with a special pure and holy oil.
So the Greeks “defiled” the oil supplies in the Temple. And when the Jews returned to Jerusalem and wanted to begin worship again in the Holy Temple, they couldn’t find any pure oil left. But after an exhaustive search, we eventually uncovered one cruze of oil that remained untouched, holy and pure. This was used to begin rekindling the Menorah.
In our personal lives too, we each have that one cruze of oil that remains constantly pure. Despite the ups and downs of life, the spiritual, emotional and material challenges we each face, and no matter how distant and despondent we may feel at times - we will always have that one cruze of oil, the essence of our soul, which remains holy, connected and sacred.
As soon as we find it, we can rekindle our Menorah, and begin shining brightly again.
This has a special meaning to us living in South Dakota. You may be the only Jew in your grade, and even in your entire school. You may be the only Jew in your company. You may be only one of a handful of people in your neighborhood lighting a Menorah. Maybe even the only one in your entire city. But you too, are an equally important member of the Jewish community. You too must ignite your spark and shine far and wide.
And like those Chanukah lights, we each need to increase, on a daily basis, never being satisfied with our prior accomplishments of Torah and Mitzvahs.
Best wishes for a Happy Happy Chanukah!
Chanukah: Living Jewish in America
Next week we will be celebrating Chanukah. We are familiar with the story of Chanukah and the subsequent Miracle of Lights which we commemorate by lighting the Menorah. But as we take a look at this holiday, we quickly realize that the victory of the Maccabees over their Greek oppressors constitutes the first victory for religious freedom in recorded history.
What the Greeks sought to do was have the Jews forget who they were. They wanted to make us abandon our traditions and practices, and have us forget they were divinely inspired and carried forth from generation to generation. But despite the hardships, we prevailed. Judaisim thrived.
Today we are lucky to live in America. In a benevolent society where our rights to practice Judaism are protected, respected and guaranteed. There has arguably never been a better time to be alive as a Jew than in America today where we have the opportunities of education, liberty and prosperity. But at this wonderful time of freedom, we must remember to cherish our Judaism as well.
We have held onto our religion, values and traditions for so long. We must continue to do so now. Let us live as proud Jews.
One lesson the Menorah lights teaches us is that we must each constantly increase in our goodness and kindness. What we did yesterday is insufficient for today. If we did one mitzvah yesterday, today we must do two. There is no limit to the goodness we can add to the world and those around us.
So this year as we light the Menorah, let us commit ourselves to live as better Jews by adding one additional light of mitzvah goodness each day. This Jewish holiday, like all others, is about much more than “they tried to kill us, we won, lets eat!” in fact, it's probably time we reword that: They tried to kill us, we won, lets live!
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 Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.