These are the days of miracles and wonders. That’s how we understand our festival of lights, Chanukah. We say the Hallel every day, we add the paragraph “Al ha-Nissim (for the miracles and salvation and heroism and wonders)” to our amidah prayers and to our Birkat ha-Mazon (blessing after meals). We have special Torah readings and light candles every evening. The glow of the holiday season is all around, right there in the open for everyone to see. This is certainly the pirsumei d’nissa, the advertisement of the miracle, that Chanukah embodies!
But what is that nes, that miracle, that we celebrate and advertise all week long? If you ask some people, they will tell you that we are celebrating the victory of the Maccabees — representing the Jews — against their Syrian/Greek oppressors. They fought and won a war; they retook the Jerusalem Temple, which had been defiled with idols and used as a stable, cleaned it out, and rededicated it for its proper use and sanctity. (The word “Chanukah” actually means founding or dedicating.) Religious freedom, the victory of the few against the numerous oppressors, purity overcoming filth and idolatry. Hooray!
The only problem with this capsule summary, which is widespread among both Jews and non-Jews, is that it’s quite mistaken in a few important ways.
Yes, there was a war against the Syrian Greeks. Yes, the Temple had been defiled and then recaptured and rededicated. Yes, the Maccabees were spearheading this effort (being a family of kohanim). But NO, the war had not been won at that time (there were three more years of fighting after the events of Chanukah), and NO, the enemies were not only the external foes (the Syrian/Greeks) but the internal enemies, the Hellenizers (Jews who were more “secular,” who wanted to fit into greater Hellenistic society).
So, just as the Gettysburg address happened before the American Civil War had been won (and the fighting continued for more and bloody years), so, too, is true of the events we commemorate each Kislev. It was, in a very real sense, the Jewish people’s Civil War (or one of them, over the centuries), which was bloody and horrific and demoralizing.
That might help us understand why the talmudic rabbis felt the need to pull the focus of Chanukah away from the war, inventing a story about the little jar of oil (spoiler alert!) that lasted much longer than it should have. In this case, the miracle is no longer victory on the field of battle, which might have been a better and more credible miracle (if only it had happened that way!), but a miracle of physics or chemistry, super-long-lasting olive oil. If that becomes the miracle, the clear (and galactic) way to commemorate it is by lighting “ner Chanukah” — the (singular) Chanukah candle. That’s the mitzvah we are familiar with to this day. All that’s left is to argue about whether, like Beit Shammai, we should start on the first night with eight candles and take one away each night, or whether we should follow Beit Hillel’s practice of starting with one and increasing each night (spoiler alert! We follow Beit Hillel’s procedure).
Problem solved — no messy historical facts to get in the way of a pretty and happy celebration. No secular versus religious split, no war between brothers, no celebrating a non-victory. Wonderful!
But if neither of these miracles is really at the core of what we celebrate (the first because it is fictitious and the second because it is at best fictional, or at worst a one-time suspension of natural law that can say nothing to us for whom natural laws are NOT suspended), then why are we so happy? Why do secular Jews and Israelis celebrate by lighting candles for eight days? Why do religious Jews recite Hallel and al ha-nissim over events that don’t exactly match the enormity of even Passover?
I’d like to suggest that there is a miracle hiding within Chanukah in plain sight. It’s been there for thousands of years, but we usually don’t pay attention to its enormous significance. One way it manifests itself is in the argument over how to light the candles (eight and decreasing, one and increasing). We all know “who won” and how the candles are therefore to be kindled. But we also, in good Jewish tradition, always remember the disagreement and the other possibility.
Even when there exists is a clear winner, the other side is never a loser, never erased from history, but instead taken seriously every time we go against his ruling. The fact that we Jews are an eternally bickering and argumentative culture that somehow — somehow — produces a winner and no losers: that’s the miracle of Chanukah, hiding in plain sight. Both sides can disagree about how God’s words are to be followed, and somehow — somehow — both of them embody God’s words, increasing the divine interpenetration into the otherwise secular world.
Two thousand years of struggle over these candles, and ideas introduced and swept aside continue to persist. The miracle is not the suspension of natural law, but the suspension of human nature, the drive to dominate and destroy. Just getting along when we are so different, getting along and thriving in so many different ways all around the globe — Chanukah is a fine example of the greatest miracle the world has ever seen.
It is also — coincidentally? — the miracle we most need in our day and age: learning to disagree while still increasing light, beauty and holiness.