The Lesson of the Oil
By Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Jewish World Review, 18Dec1998 / 29 Kislev, 5759)
TO UNDERSTAND EVENTS, one must understand the people who brought them about and were affected by them, otherwise he confronts a tangled, often confusing jumble of facts with no unifying structure.
When Israel left Egypt, did it do so as the children of the Patriarchs going to receive the Torah and build a society according to its dictates, or did it flee as a slave-nation escaping its oppressor and seeking a piece of real estate it could call its own? Similar questions are raised about more modern settings as well. Did nations fight revolutionary wars to gain liberty or was it a case of rising commercial interests losing patience with the old order? Were leaders motivated by ethics and idealism or did they use platitudes to justify selfish grabs for power?
This is no less true in the spiritual realm than in the temporal one: choices are seldom easy. Indeed, in this world it can be no other way. If the way to the good life were too obvious — if sinners were struck by lightning as soon as they transgressed and the righteous showered by heavenly bounty — people would rush to do good, both because of the tangible results and because all sincere doubts would be resolved. Then man would be little more than an automation doing the obvious. He would be as unworthy of reward as a child whom experience has taught to keep his hands in the cookie jar but out of the oven (Derech Hashem).
The miracle of Chanukah is one of the great events in Jewish history — the only miracles singled out by the Sages for commemoration by festivals are Chanukah and Purim. When it occurred, however, it was not absolutely clear whether a miracle had indeed taken place or what it was. Only through the spiritual perspective of the Sages could that be determined. Those connoisseurs of the eternal understood the factors underlying the heroics of the Jews and the sadism of the Syrians; they knew the inner dynamics of the struggle between Greek culture and Jewish sanctity. In a struggle that began three years before the Chanukah miracle, and continued for more than a generation after it, they knew how to pinpoint the critical events, how to interpret them, which to celebrate, and how.
Secular historians would have interpreted the events differently — and certainly proclaimed a different national holiday. Such pundits would have put gaudy markers on many trees, but the Divinely inspired Sages saw the forest.
The famous miracle of the lights, when a one-day supply of pure olive oil burned for eight days, took place three years after the beginning of the Hasmonean revolt. That is the only miracle that the Talmud (Shabbes 21b) mentions in its brief description of the Chanukah events. The Al HaNissim liturgy, however, which recounts the festival’s origin and which is inserted into the Chanukah prayers, tells a different tale. There, the eight-day miracle of the oil is not even mentioned. There, the emphasis is on the miracles of the military triumph. Al HaNissim tells how the Syrian-Greeks conquered the Jews and sought to wrest them from the Torah and commandments and how G-d came to Israel’s defense, enabling them to overcome the strong, the many, the impure, the wicked, and the wanton, bringing about a great victory and salvation.
Maharal (Chiddushei Aggados) notes the discrepancy between the Talmud’s emphasis on the oil and the liturgy’s emphasis on the war. He explains that even at the time of the miracle it was necessary for a Divine intervention to show the victorious Jews that their military triumph had indeed been miraculous. As we read of the Maccabean victories over the Syrian-Greeks, we can marvel at their faith in G-d and their courage in the face of impossible odds. A band of devout Jews defeated one of the superpowers of the day. But one who reads the history without knowing from faith, tradition, and study that G-d was in their ranks might be forgiven if he wonders. Even in modern times we have seen mighty armies of apathetic mercenaries defeated by bands of rebels, fighting for their own homes and to defend the dignity of their wives and children. If guerrillas can defeat huge armies equipped with twentieth century armaments, why couldn’t and ancient Jewish force do the same against Syrian horsemen with spears? Surely the triumph was immense, but was it a miracle? Yehudah the Maccabee, who succeeded his father, Mattisyahu, as leader of the revolt, was a master tactician as well as a devout and righteous tzaddik — couldn’t the victory be attributed to his tactics and the bravery of his men?
The Sages of the time asked these same questions. Jewish tradition does not proclaim festivals lightly; communities and individuals have the right and obligation to thank G-d and celebrate their salvation from death or danger, but only Scripture, prophecy, or some other Divine message allows us to proclaim that a day has been invested with holiness.
For the Sages who exulted at the liberation and purification of the Temple but wondered how miraculous it had been, G-d performed an unmistakable miracle to prove that the entire process had occurred only through His intervention. A lone flask of pure oil was found, still bearing the unbroken seal of the Kohen Gadol ( the Holy Temple’s High Priest). How did it happen the Syrian-Greeks failed to contaminate it? Why did it have the Kohen Gadol’s seal when it had never been the Temple practice for him to seal or even supervise the flasks of oil? Strange. Extraordinary. But still not necessarily miraculous. Then they lit the oil, and it burned and burned and burned. For eight days it burned until fresh oil could be prepared and brought.
This was undeniably a miracle.
To the Jewish Sages, trained in perception and refined in spirit, the glow of the Menorah was a Heavenly answer to all their doubts. Yes! Miracles had taken place. Not only for eight days, but throughout the three years that old Mattisyahu and then his loyal, vigorous sons fought and defeated the best generals and most daunting forces that King Antiochus could hurl at them. True, similar victories might have been won by the strong right arm of man, but this war had been won by the Supreme Warrior.
The Talmud speaks of the miracle of the oil and it is that event that our Menorah-lighting ritual symbolizes but, as our prayers make plain, the entire process leading up to it — skirmish, battle, and onslaught — was the primary miracle. We celebrate the oil because it was G-d’s means of showing us what we would otherwise not have known — that it was He Who delivered the strong, many, and wanton into the hands of those who were weak and few but who fought for the sake of G-d’s Torah proud.