Can you believe it’s almost Chanukah!? What is a holiday about miracles in a year like the one we’ve had? Well, let’s start with a little history.
Leading up to approximately the year 165 BCE, The Seleucids, who were part of the Assyrian-Greek Empire, oppressed the Jewish people in many ways, including prohibiting central rituals such as circumcision, kashrut, communal prayer, and more. Ultimately, they turned violent against our people and desecrated and tossed our holy Temple in Jerusalem. But, as many Chanukah songs will tell us, we eventually prevailed. A ragtag bunch of semi-fanatics, the Maccabees, defeated the Assyrian army, took back our Temple and rededicated it. When we did get back into the Temple, we had already missed Sukkot, an eight-day Pilgrimage holiday which was celebrated in the Temple.
Rabbi, you might be thinking, you forgot the part about the oil. The one single vessel of pure of oil that should have lasted only one night, but lasted eight whole nights. A miracle. Right.
Except I didn’t forget that part. Because historically, there was no part about the oil. Chanukah was originally the celebration of a military victory of the small over the many, the weak over the strong, the unlikely routing of the mighty by the meek.
But then history continued to unfold. And in 70 CE the Temple was destroyed. And we were exiled. And there, bereft, the rabbis wrote the Mishneh and the Talmud, laws and structures that would help them know how to live outside the land. And the people wept and mourned the loss of their home, and their Temple. There, they lived quietly, under the rule of the Roman Empire.
And now Chanukah seemed ironic. They had seen enough bloodshed and death and loss to find the celebration of a military victory to be bitter in their mouths. And the idea of instigating a revolution of the small over the weak to be ill-advised at best.
And so in the middle of Masechet Shabbat, a tractate of the Talmud, out of thin air comes the question: Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah?
And there, we find a story of a miracle. Of the exhausted, beaten down and bloodied Maccabees, stumbling through the rubble of their destroyed sacred space, and happening upon one glass vessel that miraculously didn’t break, wasn’t shattered, wasn’t defiled by the Assyrians. And with their last bit of strength, they used this oil to light the lamp and reignite the light of their people. And this tiny bit of oil, because of their faith, because of their God, this tiny bit of oil illuminated their Temple for eight whole nights.
Out of nowhere comes this story. And it is beautiful. We can feel it. When we are hopeless, or feeling powerless, or beaten down, small, exhausted, tempest-tossed—we can feel the power of this story of discovering light, of believing in it, and experiencing its glow as regained hope. And fictitious as it may be, it completely transformed Chanukah. And today, the rabbis’ prescient ability to have their finger on the pulse of their hurting people— is a gift for us. We, who have had the year we have had inherit their creative brilliance.
When the rabbis felt hopeless, weak, when they felt lost…they turned to wonder. Or what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would call “radical amazement.” They chose to dream up a story that caused them to feel awe, to see beauty in things which were not in their control. They decided to introduce wonder to turn their people’s hearts toward hope in place of defeat.
We see this same experience in Jacob in this week’s Torah portion, parshat Vayishlach. Jacob has come to the bank of the Yabok River. He has with him all of his family and cattle and belongings. And he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He knows that his brother Esau is on the other side and is approaching. He remembers how he hurt his brother, manipulated his birthright from him, stole his blessing. Lied about him. Lied to his father. How he has been running his whole life, always acting for himself without worrying who might get hurt. And now, he is at a bleak moment in which he is confronting all of the pain he has endured or caused or grappled with his whole life.
He sends all of his family away from himself and the text tells us, vayivater Ya’akov l’vado. And Jacob remained there, by the water, alone. V’yei’avek ish imo ad alot hashachar—an ish wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
Ish means man, but this figure is most often seen as some kind of an angel of God. Wrestling in the midnight hours. Until the first rays of light break on the horizon. Why now, Jacob? Why confront this angel now? Why manifest something so wondrous in the dark of night. And why stop when dawn is breaking?
In his hardest moments, Jacob turns to wonder. He comes through it by turning toward a celestial being, allowing something divine to come over him, to change him, to give him strength and the courage that he needs to cross the river that is before him. And then dawn breaks and the light is miraculous to him.
Heschel, our master teacher of wonder, teaches us: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement; [to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual, he wrote, is to be amazed.”
I don’t know what your social media looks like these days, but I see a lot of people taking ethereally stunning pictures of our natural world and posting them. I see people out in nature, by water, reveling in fall’s changing leaves, or savoring a breathtaking sunset. I see people posting the once in a lifetime cosmic news that on December 21st, Jupiter and Saturn will align for the first time in 800 years, reminders to “look up” and appreciate and bask in the beauty of our created world. Why? I think we are trying to grab onto the same wisdom our ancestors did. Choosing wonder when it is so dark helps us regain hope and see the world and ourselves and life differently.
The rabbis knew it, and so they became storytellers. Jacob knew it, and so he let an angel touch his soul. How will we learn their lessons now?
This week we will begin our celebration of Chanukah. And we, scholarly thinkers with all the access we need to history and rational thinking, have a choice. We can know that the oil story never happened and dismiss it as make-believe, or we can feel the turmoil of our own souls on the riverbank, our own exile rife with the anxieties and disappointments we live with daily, and we can humbly accept the wisdom of the rabbis who told a story of wonder and miracle at an otherwise disastrous time, a practice which has been a lifeline through the generations of our people.
If you are feeling this turmoil or disenchantment, where might you find wonder in these days? What can your camera, your eye, or your soul capture that can reteach you yourself, stand you back up, and adjust your gaze?
Is it nature? The crispness of the air on a winter walk. The brilliance of the stars on a clear night. The way the light refracts through our windows and casts a rainbow on our scruffy carpets. To see all of this not as the “every-day,” or the mundane, but as wondrous and worth our proactive decision to see it all as absolutely amazing? Maybe it’s in a prayer, an angelic encounter with a person, a conversation with a God we do or don’t believe in.
In each generation, Chanukah is reimagined, and now, most of all, we call it a time to bring light into dark places. We light the candles—first one, then a second, and so on until the glow increases to fill our homes with a light that somehow we understand to be more than just a flame at the tip of a piece of wax. If you have never lit candles before, or never pulled off all eight nights, or never sat and watched the tiny elusive fires dance through a lens of wonder, maybe this is year is that year. To choose to be astounded that any light might still exist, and that this light is a portal toward the miraculous. So as the days get colder and the nights grow longer still, may we choose wonder, notice beauty, cultivate radical amazement. And in doing so, like Jacob did, may we wrestle a ray of light out of the break of dawn. Amen.