Before reading on, take a moment to answer this question: we light Chanukah candles in our windows for פרסומי ניסא (pirsumei nisa), “publicizing the miracle” of Chanukah. What is the miracle of Chanukah?
Chances are, your answer had to do with a one-day supply of sanctified and sealed oil that miraculously burned for eight days until more oil could be consecrated. If so, you are not wrong. The Talmud tells that story (at Shabbat 22b) in answer to its own version of the question, simply, “What is Chanukah?”
However, the sages also give what might be a more comprehensive, and more factual, answer in the על הניסים (‘al ha-nissim) prayer which is added to our Amidah and Birkat Ha-Mazon (grace after meals) during the holiday. In that prayer, we say that God “delivered the mighty into the power of the weak, the many to the power of the few, the impure to the pure, the wicked to the righteous, the contemptuous to those occupied with Torah.” This is a poetic and prayerful way of expressing that a small group of Jews, led by a family of priests without military training, surprisingly overcame the might and will of a branch of the post-Alexandrian Greek Empire, to reestablish a relatively tiny independent Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel in the age of extensive empires in the Mediterranean and Middle East.
It’s interesting to note that the public-facing symbol, the menorah, uses a simplistic definition of a miracle: a supernatural event defying physical laws of nature. On the other hand, the understanding of “miracle” that informs our private prayers is much more sophisticated: it sees God intervening behind the scenes to subtly defy the laws of probability, history, geopolitics, and military science; and it sees human action partnered with God’s will to bring the miraculous outcome. In a simplistic worldview, the first type of miracle is highly impressive: God bends the rules at will. In a more mature outlook, the second interpretation is more uplifting: our commitment and striving, with God’s subtle help, bends history towards justice. The first view leaves us only to await divine deliverance, while the latter calls us to action in troubled times.
As I write, my sukkah has just come down, and Chanukah seems a long way off. There is plenty of excitement to fill the interim, though. Next Shabbat (which will be before you read this), we begin the Torah anew. While every word of Torah is rich with meaning and interpretation, the stories we will be reading over the coming months of late fall and winter are among the most engaging and approachable, and have inspired generations of Jews and others. We’ll be reading about difficult family dynamics, struggles to overcome personal weaknesses, and other themes that are easily understandable, meaningful, and relevant to our lives to this day. I encourage you to join us for the fun; we’ll keep the place warm for you.
Let me also remind and encourage you to join us for weekday minyanim, which will be moving back to their pre-pandemic timeframe of 7:30 am Monday and Thursdays, with in-house breakfast following. I would like to ask each of you whose schedule is open at that time of the morning to set yourself a goal that is reasonable in your mind, be it once a week, once a month, or once every two months, besides your own yahrzeit days, and try to stick to it throughout the year. First of all, if you want to have a minyan when you come in to say Kaddish, it’s only fair to help make the minyan when others have a yahrzeit. Second, we have years of catching up to do on the community business of sitting around a table together schmoozing. Third, you might just find that you enjoy the rhythms of regular davenning and the company of our regular crowd. There’s an old line I have seen attributed to the author Harry Golden: “Cohen comes to shul to talk to God; I come to shul to talk to Cohen.” There is nothing wrong with that, so long as you talk to God during the minyan and Cohen over breakfast afterward.
I will share one final programming note: this year, the 25th of December falls on Sunday and is the seventh day (eighth night) of Chanukah. It seems many of our friends and neighbors will be occupied that day, and many businesses and entertainments will be closed. Being a weekend, a school vacation day, and the last evening of the year to light Chanukah licht together, it seemed an ideal occasion to schedule an evening of fun, games, and movies for children and adults here at the synagogue, to make up for the lack of things to do around town. Mind you, that might be a fine date for us to have a social day together in other years, but the confluence of circumstances this year was too good to ignore. No word yet on whether the menu will be the traditional Chinese. Please RSVP to the office and come enjoy – you had other plans?