Why Do We Celebrate Hanukkah?
The Miracle of Hanukkah
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Hanukkah Miracle Of The Oil
Hanukah is the annual celebration of a time long ago when one little jar of oil burned and shined its light for eight full days. For this reason, we have an eight-day holiday described as days of hallel ve-hoda'a, praise and thanksgiving.
Now, it's a beautiful holiday, but if we stop and think about it, is the miracle of the oil such a big deal that it's worth creating a whole new holiday? Our other holidays celebrate major miracles like the Exodus from Egypt on Passover, or the entire nation being saved from annihilation on Purim. But on Hanukah, the miracle is that the lights burned for longer than we expected? Why is that something we give thanks and praise for all of these years later? Would history have turned out so differently if the Maccabees had to wait a few days before they could relight the Menorah? Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he addresses these questions head on. He leads us on a journey to another major event in our national history that seems to be a precursor of sorts to the Hanukah miracle. When we see how the seemingly minor miracle of the lights is part of a much larger story, we'll be able to understand the deeper, lasting meaning of this miracle and why it's something worth celebrating and giving thanks for all these years later.
What Is The Miracle Of Hanukkah?
Hi, it's Rabbi David Fohrman. We're going to comparison shop our way through some of the Jewish holidays and we're going to play a little game – 'Big Miracle, Small Miracle' – we'll call it. We're going to look at each of these holidays and you tell me whether you think the miracle that we are celebrating is really a big miracle or really small miracle?
Does Hanukkah Celebrate a Big or Small Miracle?
Let's start with Pesach, Passover. So, the Jews are enslaved in Egypt for centuries. Then, 10 plagues descend upon our adversaries. Huge plagues unknown to the civilized world. It all culminates with the splitting of the Red Sea. The Egyptian tormentors were destroyed, the Jews go to freedom – big miracle, small miracle? That's pretty big miracle.
Let's look at Purim. The Jews scattered through a 127 provinces face a threat, by Haman, a man on a crusade to destroy every Jew – man, woman and child, on a single day, a holocaust of epic proportions. Through the workings of Mordecai and Esther, the Jews are saved, and Haman is hanged. Big miracle, or small miracle? Again, pretty big miracle. Maybe not as overt as the splitting of the Red Sea, but in terms of it's consequences, pretty big miracle.
And now let's look at Hanukkah. So the Jews are trying to light the menorah. The Greeks have defiled all the oil. Only one little jar of oil that's pure. It's enough to last for a single day. It's not enough time for the Jews to make new oil. The menorah is supposed to be lit continuously. But when they lit the menorah from that little jar of oil enough to last just a day, it didn't last for just a day. It lasted for eight whole days. Is that a big miracle, or a little miracle?
It kind of seems like a little miracle.
Why Is the Hanukkah Miracle Even Celebrated?
Don't get me wrong, it's a very nice miracle, but how does that stack up against being saved from an eminent holocaust, the Red Sea, the 10 plagues, the birth of the Jewish nation? Okay, so the oil lasted a little longer. I mean, because of that, for centuries, for millennia, Jews will celebrate this? Why is this such a big deal? Is this really a small miracle, or is it a big miracle? What are we really celebrating here?
Okay, so that's question number 1 for you. Here's another question I would like you to consider. You know, in most holidays in the Jewish calendar it's pretty clear what it is that we're celebrating. Pesach – we're celebrating the Jews going free from Egypt. Purim – we're celebrating the Jews being saved from holocaust. In Hanukkah, what exactly are we celebrating?
Turns out, there actually is really two miracles that we are celebrating. We are celebrating the miracle of oil. But we are also celebrating the miracle of the war. And if you look at the Al HaNisim prayer, which we talk about what it is we're commemorating. We're commemorating the victory of the little over the small, the weak over the strong. We're also commemorating the candles; v'hidliku nerot bechatzrot kadshecha; the Jews came afterwards; they lit candles. So, it's a little confusing. Like, what is it that we're celebrating? Are we celebrating, like, this miracle of the candle; or are we celebrating the miracle of the war? We're celebrating both, apparently. So, how did they live together?
Somebody asked you, "What do you really celebrate on Hanukkah?" It's a little strange to have one holiday in celebration of two entirely different things. Or maybe, they aren't entirely different things. Maybe these two are somehow related. It would be kind of satisfying if somehow the victory in the war and the miracle with the candles were both kind of reflections of the same things in some kind of way. There's one unified thing that we are celebrating on Hanukkah; the candles is one aspect of it, the war is the other. But what is that unified thing?
If we could somehow isolate the common denominator in both, we might have an insight into what it is.
What Unifies the Hanukkah Oil Miracle and the War?
I think we will get some clues to answer these questions if we take a look at the Gemara, the piece of the Talmud that describes to us the miracle of Hanukkah, and what it is that we are commemorating, and how it is that we commemorate it. So, read this with me and I think we may find it puzzling, but the puzzling aspects of this Gemara may provide us with some clues. Let's take a look.
Mai Hanukkah, the Gemara says, "What is this Hanukkah that we celebrate? Shekashneknesu Yavanim lehechal, and the Greeks came in to the Holy Temple; timu chol hashmanim, they have defiled all of the oils; u'keshegavrah malchot beit hashmonai vanitzchum, and when the Hashmanim prevailed over them; badku velo mitzu ela pach achad shel shemen, they found only one jar of oil; shehayah munach bechosmo shel kohen gadol, and the seal of kohen gadol testified it was still pure, the seal had been unbroken. Velo hayah bo ela lehadlik yom echad, but it was only enough in that jar of oil to light the menorah for one day. Na'aseh bo nes vehadliku mimenu shmonah yamim, a miracle occurred and they were able to light the menorah continuously with this oil for eight days."
And now, here we get to the part that's a little curious. Leshanah acheret kavum va'asom yamim tovim behallel vehodah, the following year, they established that this would be a holiday. They made this into a yom tov, behallel vehodah, with thanks and with praise.
So, I have two questions for you. The first is, why did it take until next year? This miracle happened, why didn’t they just recognize, "Why! This great miracle happened. Let's have a holiday?" Why does the Gemara go out of it's way to tell us, "The next year, they established this?" That's question number 1.
Question number 2: notice how the Gemara is emphasizing that the days the Hanukkah was established was not the days we are holidaying, not just days of celebration; but days of hallel v'hodah, of thanks and of praise? Somehow, that idea of these days are days of thanks and praise is baked into the holiday itself, almost in a way that doesn't occur with any other holiday.
Take Purim for example. If you look at the Al HaNisim prayer, which we insert into Shemona Esreh and into Birkat Hamazon. You won't find this aspect of the day, that the holiday was established for prayers and for thanks. The structure of the Al HaNisim prayers, we say it was this great miracle; then we describe the miracle of the days of Mordecai and Esther – there was a threat of a terrible holocaust and at the end, it was Haman, the one who was hanged on a tree. V'talu oto vaet-banav al haetz, that's the way Al HaNisim ends. That's not the way Al HaNisim when it comes to Hanukkah.
After the description of the miracle, after the talk of coming into the temple and relighting the menorah, we don't end with that description of the miracle. The Al HaNisim prayer continues: v'kavu shmonat yemey Hanukkah elu lehodot ulehalel leshimcha hagadol. Its almost like, "This is part of the miracle; this is part of the description of the event that we are celebrating; that after this all happened, they established these days of Hanukkah; lehodot ulehalel, to praise you." Why is that itself part of the thing that we commemorate? It's like we are commemorating the act of commemorating. That's weird, we’re not commemorating that. We’re commemorating in the miracle – what's going on here?
Okay, those were kind of some of the questions I want you to think about. And I want to suggest a key to answering them. The key is: we've seen Hanukkah before. It's all happened one time before.
Is There a Precursor to Hanukkah in the Bible?
You see, Hanukkah is a Rabbinic holiday, it happens in the Rabbinic period long after the Torah is canonized. But if you look carefully in Biblical text itself, you will find a precursor for the events of Hanukkah. You will find an event that occurs, that reminds you eerily of the events of Hanukkah, of the miracle of the oil.If we can understand what that Biblical event was, and what its significance was, we might gain an unprecedented insight into the meaning of Hanukkah?
Let's think about that miracle with the oil. What were its distinguishing characteristics? There's enough oil for only one day; but it burns for eight days. Somehow, there's this little bit of oil and it's burning and it's burning, and it's not being consumed. What does that remind you of?
I don't know about you, but it reminds me of the burning bush. There's a bush that's burning, burning for hours and it's not being consumed. Centuries later, there's oil burning, burning for hours, days, but it's not being consumed either. You know, if you consider Hanukkah the last great miracle in our national history that we commemorate by means of a holiday, what would be our first great national miracle? It'll probably be the burning bush. That's the beginning of the redemption from Egypt that gives rise to our birth as a people. So, it's almost like we have these bookends in our history. Burning bush, Hanukkah. Could the burning bush hold a key to understanding the meaning of the oil?
Parallels to the Hanukkah Miracle in the Torah
Let's read through the first few verses of the burning bush story together, and kind of see what's going on. It begins here: Moshe hayah roeh et-tzon Yitro choteno kohen Midyan. So Moses was shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law, Yitro. Vayinhag et-hatzon achar hamidbar, so he leads the sheep through the desert; vayavo el-har haElokim chorevah, and he comes to the mountain of God, to Horeb. Let's just stop right there for a moment. What's a little bit odd about that description, that verse?
You have no idea what the text is telling you here. What do you mean he came to the mountain of God, Horeb? What is it that makes this the mountain of God? I mean, it's true that if you've already read through the entire Torah, you know what happens later. You know that Revelation happens at Mount Sinai, and you know later on in the Torah, that Sinai – this mountain – is identified with Mount Horeb; that these are one and the same mountains. Then, you would know in retrospect that when Moses came to this mountain at the burning bush, the mountain Horeb, he was coming to the mountain of God.
If you are just reading through the first couple of chapters of Exodus, and you get to the story of the burning bush, and you haven't gotten yet to Revelation, you have no idea what this is talking about. What do you mean this is the mountain of God? What's so special? This is a mountain, it happens to be named Horeb. What do you mean it's the mountain of God? That's question number 1; let's keep on reading.
So, an angel appears to Moses, belabat-esh mitoch hasneh, in flames, from the midst of the bush. Vayar, and Moses sees, vehineh hasneh boer baesh vehasneh einenu uchal, he sees the bush burning with fire; but the bush isn't being consumed. Vayomer Moshe, and Moses says, asurah-na ve'ereh et-hamareh hagadol hazeh. Moses says, "Gee! Let me take a look at this, a remarkable thing. Madua lo-yivar hasneh, how come that bush isn't burning?" Vayar Hashem ki sar lirot, then God sees, and Moses's turned to look at the bush. Vayikra elav Elokim mitoch hasneh vayomer Moshe Moshe – vayomer hineni, and God calls out to him amidst the bush and says, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses says, "Here I am."
So, here's the next strange thing in this narrative. Why do I need all of this? Isn't all of this, or most of this, kind of extraneous description? I mean, what if we just took out this entire verse and a half section? What if we read it like this? So, there's this burning bush, vayar vehineh hasneh boer baesh vehasneh einenu uchal, Moses sees and he sees there's this bush, and it's burning with fire; and the bush isn't being consumed. And at that point, vayikra elav Elokim mitoch hasneh, God called out to him from the bush and said, "Moses! Moses! Vayomer hineni." Moses answered, "Here I am." What is all this extraneous detail about Moses talking to himself about this remarkable thing? About God seeing that he is pausing to look. Why is all that important?
Vayar Hashem ki sar lirot, God saw that he has stopped to look. That's important. It implies that if God didn't see that Moses stopped to look, then maybe the story would have been different. Maybe Moses wouldn't have been chosen. There's something about Moses stopping to look, something about Moses saying, "Gee! Isn't this remarkable?" Something about God perceiving that Moses stopping to look, which is crucial to the story. The story doesn't happen without that.
Let's pull back the zoom lens for a moment and ask this. What do we know about Moses, before he is selected at the burning bush? God comes out of the blue and says, "I've got a job for you. I want you to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt." What do we know about Moses before that point?
Everything we know about him is relevant. We know that he was born to Jewish parents, but raised by princess of Egypt in the palace. We know that he went out when he didn't have to, to look and see the lot of his brothers being enslaved. We know he chose to identify with them, with their suffering. We know that he took the side of those he view of being oppressed. He risked his life to save the Jew being struck of a taskmaster. He risked himself again when he finds one Jew hitting another. He risks himself a third time when he saves the daughters of Yitro from being bullied by other shepherd. All of that is important.
The Torah is telling us, without telling us overtly; why it was Moses was chosen. He was chosen because of these things. He wasn't just a shepherd who cared for defenseless sheep; he cared for defenseless people. All of these is important to who he was as a leader. But the last thing important about it, is that he stopped to notice the burning bush. He said, "Isn't this remarkable?" And God saw that, and it was the last thing that happens before God says, "I have a job for you."
Is the Torah implying to us that this was the clincher – this was the last event, the last happening that made Moses right for this job? And if so, what was so special about noticing the bush? Everyone can notice the bush; it was a miracle, right?
Now, somehow, it wasn't such an obvious miracle. Just like the lights of the oil wasn't such an obvious miracle; which makes it all the stranger, right? I mean, if you were God, and you wanted to call out to Moses at this big, dramatic moment of history, wouldn't you make a big miracle?
I mean, think how badly God's first conversation with Moses goes. God says, "I have a job for you." Moses says, "No, you don't." God says, "No, I really want you to lead the Jewish people." Moses says, "I'm telling you God, you have the wrong guy. I'm totally not the one you want." And they go back and forth like this; God says, "No, I'm telling you it's you." Moses, "No! I'm really not made for this." I mean, the story ends badly. God finally becomes angry with Moses and says, "Look, I'm not listening to you anymore. You're just doing this."
Maybe it would have gone better, if God made an impressive miracle to begin with. Now, if He really wanted to get Moses's attention, something like – forgive me – remember that scene from Wizard of Oz? The wicked witch riding Dorothy's name smoked from a broom in the sky? I mean, that got her attention. What about lightning that sears a message into rock? "Moses, I need you. Love, God."
Any of these would have been very, very impressive. It's hard to notice a bush that's burning and not being consumed. It's hard to notice oil that's burning and not being consumed. What secret lies in these two hard to notice miracles?
What Was Significant About the Hanukkah Miracle?
What exactly is it about that sight which makes it difficult to notice? Well, the first one is the element of time. How long do you have to look at a burning bush before you notice that the bush isn't being consumed? Pretty long time. But even if you look at it for a long time, you still might not notice it. And there lies the key. Why wouldn't you notice it?
The answer is: because that's not the way bushes work. Bushes always get consumed eventually when they burn. And because it's not the way bushes work, even if your eyes see the bush remaining intact despite the fire, your mind might not necessarily accept what your eyes see. Let me explain what I mean by that.
A while ago, there was this social psychology experiment. It involved college students, who were asked to look at playing cards and identify which cards they were seeing. So, they were shown a whole bunch of playing cards – an eight of spades, a three of hearts, five of clubs; except, they were shown these kids a three of hearts and one of the hearts have been erased with whiteout. So, we want to see how the kids would identify this card.
So, they did this experiment with hundreds of kids, and every student got to look at the cards for 5/6/7 seconds. And the experiment was what would happen once they got to the anomalous cards. When they got to the three of hearts with only two hearts, how did the kids identify it? Turns out, about half of them identified that there's a three of hearts. About half of them identified it as a two of hearts. But no one said, "There's no such card like that on the deck, there's something wrong with that card." They got to look at this card for 5/6/7 seconds and no one saw what it really was. Their eyes could see what was there, but their brains couldn't accept what their eyes were seeing.
Each one of those students came to that experiment with a certain preconceived notion in their minds. The deck contains only 52 cards, and what they saw was a 53rd card; card that's not in the standard deck. But their brain didn't accept the possibility of a 53rd card.
So, what happens when your eyes see something that doesn't fit your preconceived notions. You take the round peg and you smash it into the square hole. By golly! It's either going to be the a three of hearts or it's going to be a two of hearts, but I'm going to make this fit; and you don't even realize you saw something anomalous.
When you see things that burn, the thing that's burning always gets consumed. That's why this miracle was so hard to notice. Even if you had the luxury of time, even if you could look at it long enough, you wouldn't always see. That was the final test. Moses had to be someone who could see not with his eyes, but accept with his mind what his eyes saw. Why was that quality such an important quality for Moses to have?
Let's stop and ponder this: what was the meaning of the burning bush? We talked before about how impressive or unimpressive the miracle was. But forget that for a moment. Why a burning bush above all things? God could have revealed himself any which way; why choose that?
Moses says an interesting thing when he sees the bush. Madua lo-yivar hasneh, were his words, "Why isn't the bush burning?" In Hebrew, there's two different words for 'Why': 'lamah' and 'Madua''. Why would a language have two different words for a single idea? Must be, it's not the same idea. What are these different two kinds of 'why'?
Let's start with 'lamah'. Lamah is really a contraction of 'Le', and 'Mah' – to what. To what end. Where are you going with this? Moses later on, says to God at the Golden Calf, lamah yechareh afcha be'amecha, why are you so angry at these people?" I mean, it was obvious why he was angry about these people; they're dancing around the Golden Calf, but that wasn't Moses's question. his question was, 'To what end – where will this anger go'? His question wasn't about the past, it was about the future. If you carry through on this threat and you destroy the people, what would the forefathers say? What would the Egyptians say? Where does this go? That's 'lamah'' – to what end.
But there's another kind of 'Why'. 'Madua' – related to the modern scientific word 'Mada'. Mada is the word for science. 'Madua' is the scientific kind of 'why'. It's a question about the past. 'What happened in the past to make things the way they are now?' – that's the question Moses asks about the burning bush. "What's the nature of this bush such that it does not burn? What is happening here?" What did Moses see when he asked that question, 'Madua'?
I want to suggest that he made what we might even call a scientific kind of inference. It's hard to talk about the science of the miracle, but bear with me for a moment. What does it tell you about the fire, that the bush is not being consumed? If the bush is not being destroyed by the fire, what does that tell you about where the fire comes from?
The easiest way to say this, is maybe to take it out of the realm of miracles. Think about a modern analogy. You ever see a gas fireplace? There's these fake logs – logs that don't get burned by the fire. So, let's say you saw a gas fireplace but it was the first time that you've ever seen one of these. You've stood there looking at it long enough to realize – the logs are not being burned; what could you infer? You could infer that the logs are not the source of the fire; the logs are not the fuel, the fuel comes from somewhere else and in fact you will be right. The fuel in this case comes from a gas line. But there weren't any gas lines at the burning bush.
If Moses looks at the bush and sees that the fire is not consuming the bush, and he says, madua lo-yivar hasneh, why isn't the bush burning? The only answer to that is the bush is not the source of the fire. There's a transcendent source for the fire. A source beyond this world. You see there's two kinds of fire – there's the fire we usually see and the fire we don't usually see.
Understanding the Miracle of Light
The fire we usually see is a by-product of the physical world; stuff burns and when it burns, we see flame. Flame is ethereal; it's kind of the least physical aspect of the physical world. You can’t touch it, you can’t feel it, you can’t capture it, you can’t get too close to it. Usually, that ethereal thing we call fire is a by-product of something that's burning.
But what God was showing Moshe was, 'that's not the only kind of fire there is'. Fire can come from somewhere else; fire can come from outside this world too. Fire can rest upon a physical thing, even if that physical thing is not the source for it. Why is it so important for Moshe to know that? Well, let's go back to why it's important for Moshe to have any of the qualities he was chosen for? Why was it important for Moshe to side with those whose life and welfare were threatened? When does Moshe actualize that part of his leadership set of skills? Probably the greatest moment in history when Moshe actualizes that, is when God Himself wants to destroy the Jews.
God makes a grand bargain with Moses, "The Jews are worshiping the Golden Calf, leave me alone and I'll destroy them." Moshe implicitly ask the question, "And if I don't leave you alone? Will you not destroy them? So, I won't leave you alone. Mecheni na misifrecha asher katavta, if you destroy them, I won't take your bargain. Erase me from the book that you have written." Just as Moses once threw his lot in with a single Jew being oppressed by an Egyptian, now he throws his lot in with the entire Jewish people, shielding them, even if it is God Himself who would seek to destroy them. So, it's like God saying, "That's why I picked you. That's why I needed this from you."
Maybe at that same event, maybe at that same moment in history, Moshe needed the other quality he was being tested about – his ability to see the source of the fire. He needed it because the burning bush wasn't going to be the only time he was going to see fire that didn't consume. He was going to see that exact same thing at a later, crucial moment in history too; at a moment that virtually coincided with the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf. When was that?
I want to read with you again these beginning verses of the burning bush story. I think we'll find something astonishing. We've heard it all before. Where else on the Torah do we hear a story that reminds us of this? "And Moses was shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law, and he was leading the sheep through the desert until he came to the Mountain of God at Horeb." We've talked about before the strange question: why is it called the Mountain of God? It's not yet the Mountain of God. But when does it become the Mountain of God? At Revelation of Sinai.
Okay, there's the clue. When else does Moses lead sheep through a desert on his way to the Mountain of God? Sheep belonging to his father. The answer of course, is 'at Revelation'. Except the sheep aren't sheep; the flock this time is the Jewish people. The Jewish people belonging to Moses's Father. Not his father-in-law, his Father in Heaven. And he leads them through the desert until they get to the Mountain of God, until they get to Horeb, and what do they find there? They find something on fire.
Fast forward 16 chapters. Chapter 19, verse 18: v'har Sinai ashan kulo, the mountain was engulfed in smoke, the mountain was ablaze; but not because the mountain was the fuel for the fire, no! Mifnei asher yarad alav Hashem baesh, because God had descended upon it, because there was a transcendent source for the fire. The burning bush gets replayed again, all of this is just practice for the real thing. The real thing is the Revelation.
Which explains something. It explains why Moses had to be able to see the burning bush. You have to be able to see the 53rd card. Because if you can't open yourself to the possibility of a transcendent source of fire, even if it's right in front of you, you wont really see it. There could be a huge Revelation with fireworks – whatever you want – but if you're not open to the possibility of the transcendent God coming into this world, you'll ignore all evidence of it. It's just the 53rd card – you just won't see it.
Moses, had two great tests. Two surpassing qualities that God was looking for in two events. One: standing up for the underdog. Standing up for someone whose life or livelihood is threatened. Moshe defended the Jew who is being struck by the Egyptian, the daughters of Yitro when they were being harassed by the shepherds. And when would that trait shine brightly in Moses's stewardship of the Jewish people? At Sinai. When in the wake of the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, Moses was called upon to side with the Jewish people and defend them, so to speak, against the Almighty Himself. As we said before, it's almost as if God was laughing, "Of course! That's why I picked you."
But something else happened at Sinai beside the Golden Calf; and it was Revelation. And here the second surpassing quality of Moses shines brightly – his ability to see, to not allow his mind to deceive his eyes. To see the other-worldly fire for what it really was. Both those tests come to fruition at Sinai. At virtually the same moment of time. It kind of makes you wonder, whether it was two qualities, or really maybe just one? The ability to see. Revelation and the Golden Calf. One: the ability to see God on this world. The other: the ability to see a fellow man.
The Miracle of Oil as a Bridge to Transcendence
We're very comfortable in our little world; we don't like seeing things that are outside it. One thing that is outside of that is the transcendent God. But there are other things that are outside of our little world too – people suffering. People who aren't so much like us. What if I'm an Egyptian prince ensconced in the palace and hear the cries of these slaves outside? "Who are they? They are the other guys!" It's just white noise, just blends into the background. You are walking on your way, there's some Midianite women getting harassed. It's just white noise, you don't really hear it. Moses was someone who heard what there was to hear; who saw what there was to see; both in his relationships with people and in his relationship to God. It's what made him special. And if we emulate that quality, if we too learn the lesson of the burning bush, of Revelation, of Hanukkah – it can make us special too.
What's the connection between these two seemingly different miracles of Hanukkah? The miracle of the lights and the miracle of the war? I think the connecting point is the idea of the unobvious – the notion of a physical thing not being a force in and of itself being a vehicle for a force. The bush wasn't the fuel for the fire, it was a vehicle upon which the fire rests.
What about the military machine of the Maccabees? Was that the force that caused the victory? Or, was it a vehicle upon which the force rests? The Al HaNisim prayer describes the victory as one in which the weak beat the strong. But why did the weak beat the strong? Not because they have better sharpshooters, but because they have an unseen transcendent force that battled with them. The military machine of those few Maccabees is just the earthly vehicle for that force, just as the bush is the earthly vehicle for the fire that doesn't come from Earth, but comes from heaven.
One of the greatest, most mysterious questions that all scientists need to ponder is, why is anything here? Why does anything exist? So, there's basically two possible answers. One possible answer is: it just exists; it always existed – that's just the way it is. Another possible answer is: someone put it here. A being outside of space and time, created space and time and everything inside it. There's a realm beyond our own.
That's the dividing point between the Greeks and the Jews. We say, "Someone created it. There's a reality to transcendence." The Greeks said, "It just is." Aristotle: "The world is eternal." It is. That was the great battle between Maimonides, the Rambam, and Aristotelian thought. Rambam says, "It's not true that the world just is." Aristotle is a very smart guy, but he got that wrong. The world had a beginning, the world was created.
A thousand or so years after the Rambam, in 1978, as the Big Bang Theory was finally beginning to gain some traction, Robert Jastrow, an astronomer-physicist, wrote in his book 'God and the Astronomers', "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream." He scaled the mountains of ignorance, about to conquer the highest peak, and as he pulls himself over the final rock, he's greeted by a band of theologians who've been sitting there for centuries.
The world isn't Eternal, it had a beginning. There was a moment of Creation, a moment when time and space began. Maybe there is something outside of time and space.
This is the great debate between the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks – when confronted with transcendence, when confronted with fire, when confronted with those ethereal things – can't conceive of them, except as products of the physical world. We allow ourselves to see something else – a possibility, a beauty, a fire that could be a bridge to the transcendent world.
And that was the miracle of Hanukkah. A little jar of oil burning and burning but the oil not being consumed. It's a hard miracle to see, by its nature you have to really sit and look at it, to ponder it, and then you understand.
Why Is the Hanukkah Miracle Important?
Even the Jews – the Jews looked at it, they didn't spontaneously proclaim a miracle. Pondered it, and then said, "Yes! That's what happened." Lashanah acheret, the next year, kovum, they made these days, days of hallel v'hodah – Days of Thanks and Praise." Thanks and praise are associated with Hanukkah in a way, they are not associated with any other holiday because it's part of the miracle. It's our response to the miracle. When the transcendent comes from another world to meet you here in this world, when God says, "Here I am, in your world," what does that require of us?
It requires of us to see the light for what it is, to not take it for granted, to not mistake it for something else. It requires of us to see the 53rd card, to understand how remarkable it is and how privileged we are to have experienced it. It requires us to say 'thank you' for an awesome experience. It could have just as easily been written off.
Lahodot u'lehallel, to give 'thanks' and to give 'praise', in our willingness to rise to that challenge, to do that, is what makes us different from the Greeks. And that's why we celebrate this holiday.