Today is the last day of Hanukkah.
Much like the spices at Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, which are meant to remind us of the sweetness of Shabbat over the course of the rest of the week, so too does to fully-lit menorah we lit last night is meant to leave us with the power of light illuminating the darkness as we move into the rest of the year.
Hanukkah is a time to celebrate miracles. We tell the story of the Maccabees who, after defeating the Syrian-Greeks in a military conflict, rededicate the Temple and find a small amount of oil to light the menorah, the eternal light that was always lit in that sacred building. (Think of the ner tamid, the eternal light in our contemporary sanctuaries). While the amount of oil was enough for one night, say the ancient sages, it lasted 8, which was enough time to produce more oil. Thus the miracle of Hanukkah.
For those who have been by the TBH building recently you may have noticed that the reader board on the corner of 8th and Washington is different. Rather than tell the times of the services this coming week or announcing special events, I have taken it over to put a short message and teaching. With the website and emails, we have other ways of letting folks know what is going on; we don’t need another announcement board, but we can always use another means of teaching!
I’ve been selecting a new teaching each month or so, and for the month of Kislev through Hanukkah I took a quote from the Talmud in tractate Kiddushin, page 39b: “If the ladder is rickety, don’t rely on miracles.”
The quote is actually a paraphrase. The rabbis in the Talmud are speaking of the reward for doing a mitzvah (sacred obligation). They teach that if one performs a mitzvah, he or she is rewarded with long life, and if one does not, he or she is punished similarly.
But, say the sages, they have seen instances which seem to disprove this idea.
The specific example they bring refers to Deuteronomy 22:6: “If, along the road, you chance upon a birds’ nest, in a tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”
The sages relate a story of a man who tells his son to climb a ladder to collect eggs from a nest, but to be sure to shoo the mother away first in keeping with the Torah teaching. He did so, but climbing back down, he fell and died. Where is the long life in reward for following this mitzvah, they ask? (Especially since in the Torah it refers specifically to the reward of long life.)
First the sages question the occurrence, but one rabbi vouches that it happened. Another suggests that the youth was thinking sinful thoughts, but that too is dismissed. Ultimately they hold by their original thought, that performing mitzvot and good deeds leads to a better life. But in this instance, they say, “the ladder was rickety, and would have caused injury. And if injury is likely, one must not rely on a miracle.”
In other words, if something is dangerous, be realistic, and don’t think you are going to miraculously be saved. And maybe if you see something broken, don’t rely on a miracle to take care of it, go out and fix it yourself.
Hanukkah is a celebration of miracles. We tell the story of one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight. The Bible too speaks of miracles of seas parting to facilitate escape and the sun standing still to lengthen the day. But those are not the miracles we recognize in our own lives. The miracles in our lives are the blessings we did not at first recognize or even know we needed, but when they come to us, and we see them, our lives are altered.
And as the Talmud teaches, while we should be open to miracles from outside ourselves, another type of miracle is the ability to affect our own reality. Hanukkah is a celebration of the success of the human endeavor to overcome one’s station and affect radical change. The ability to see a “rickety” situation and not rely on something or someone else to change it for us–that we as humans are not static but dynamic, not dependent but independent–is a miracle as well.