Even today, sustained by the light of the last miracle

Rabbi Tracy Nathan

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan

On Hanukkah, one of the blessings we recite acknowledges the miracles performed for our ancestors “in those days, at this time.” Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, known by his work, Sefas Emes, taught that Hanukkah was the last miracle performed for us, and we are still sustained by that light. In his eyes, “Hanukkah contains within it the power to keep renewing until the redeemer comes, which is why it is called Hanukkah, meaning rededication or renewal — “the miracle will keep renewing itself until the redeemer comes….” (The Language of Truth, Art Green, p. 380). 

Why is this Hanukkah miracle powerful enough to sustain us until the time of redemption? Oil that lasted longer than it should have is not the most spectacular of the miracles performed for our ancestors. I’m reminded of how quiet and subtle the re-enactment of this miracle is when sometimes after lighting, I step outside to view our Hanukkah menorah from the outside; one barely notices the lights in in the window when surrounded by our neighbors’ dazzling Christmas lights. 

Perhaps it is the human agency at the heart of Hanukkah that makes it a sustainable miracle. Whether you see yourself in the story of the oppressed resisting a powerful empire; or in those of courage who expressed and stood up for their religious or cultural identity; or in the faithful who sought and found a jar of sealed holy oil and lit the lamp in the desecrated Temple knowing there was not enough, human agents are at the center of Hanukkah. And today, when we light our menorahs and turn our home into a mikdash me’at, a miniature temple, we renew that miracle by re-dedicating ourselves and our homes to be places of holiness and Torah. 

In his essay on Hanukkah, “The Light and the Dark,” the philosopher Emanuel Levinas writes on this quality of the Hanukkah miracle, that like the oil, it has this ability to provide more light, spirit, and inspiration than expected: 

Hanukkah is therefore for us the miracle of a light richer than the energies feeding it, the miracle of ‘more’ from ‘less’, the miracle of surpassing. The Hasmonean resistance is also this light detached from its material sources. But the talmudic text restores to a national war, a war defending a culture, the permanent horizon of marvel. It is the daily marvel of the spirit that precedes culture. It is a flame that burns with its own fervour: the genius that invents the previously unheard-of, even though everything has already been said; the love that is inflamed even though the loved one is not perfect; the will that undertakes to do something despite the paralysing obstacles in its way; the hope that lights up a life in the absence of reasons for hope; the patience that bears what can kill it. It concerns the infinite resources of the spirit that, as a creator, surpasses the prudence of techniques; without calculation, without past, it joyfully pours forth its feelings in space, freely and prodigiously entering into the cause of the Other. (“Difficult Freedom,” Emanuel Levinas, 1990). 

This is Hanukkah. Our act of quiet and subtle beauty — lighting candles in a lamp — has radiant meaning and contains within it multitudes of miracles, miracles from “those days,” and miracles “at this time.”

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is Senior Educator and Director of Melton at the Center for Jewish Learning at Jewish Federation of St. Louis and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.