There were 2 events this week that deeply touched the soul of the Jewish world. The 1st was Wednesday night in Berlin, Germany. Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal—the Chabad rabbi in Berlin—officiated at a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony in the center of Berlin with a large menorah at the Brandenburg Gate.
Now, in order to appreciate how monumental this ceremony is, you have to understand some of the history of the Brandenburg Gate. Built in 1791, it was used again and again as a symbol of German power. That’s why Napoleon celebrated his capture of Berlin in 1806 at the gate. In modern times, Adolf Hitler passed through the Brandenburg Gate on the way to the opening ceremonies of the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. Victorious Wehrmacht soldiers paraded through the Brandenburg Gate after their victorious capture of Poland in 1938. Throughout WWII the Nazis marched through and held rallies at the gate.
Once a symbol of Nazi power—that tried to extinguish the holy light of Jews and Judaism—The Brandenburg Gate is now the site of Jews lighting the Chanukah menorah which symbolizes the fight for religious freedom! The irony is too rich to ignore.
The other event occurred the next morning: the fire in Israel’s Carmel Forrest just south of Haifa. Cheryl and I spent a night there in July. It’s one of Israel’s rare natural forests—beautiful and serene. More than 40 have died—most of whom were prison guards sent to rescue prisoners from a local prison. The wind was strong and it suddenly trapped their buss with fire. The fire raged so strongly because Israel is in the midst of a severe drought because the winter rains, expected to start in November have not yet come.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appealed to the United States, Greece, Italy, Russia, Germany and Cyprus for help extinguishing the fire. Eli Bin, the director of Magen David Adom, Israel’s Red Cross, called the fire, “the worst disaster in Israel’s history.” Several kibbutzim and villages had to be evacuated. Chanukah celebrates the fire that burned 8 days—lighting up the menorah in the ancient Temple rescued from the Syrian Greeks—when it was only supposed to last for one day. We pray that this fire will not last 8 days and will be put out immediately. The lighting of the menorah at the Brandenburg Gate is truly miraculous. And the light coming from the Carmel Forest seems to need a miracle.
Let’s talk about the Chanukah miracle for a moment. Rabbi Gershon Winkler points out that the miracle of the tiny cruise of oil that lasted 8 days, however, did not happen for the 1st time ever on Chanukah. It happened on a far grander scale more than 600 years earlier in the time of the prophet Elisha (II Kings chapter 4) who miraculously turned a small flask of oil into a Texas oil rig—olive oil, that is. A widow stricken with dire poverty approached Elisha and told him her sad story about not having a dime to her name and fearful that she would have to surrender her sons as slaves to her creditors.
Elisha then asked her to fill out an Income and Expense Report listing her assets, and unfortunately the report was virtually blank except for a single item of little value—a small flask of cooking oil. Elisha instructed the woman to canvas her entire neighborhood with her sons and borrow as many jars, pots and pans as they could gather. He then told the woman to start filling all the myriad jars, pots and pans she’d gathered from her modest flask of oil. Amazingly, the tiny flask filled them all. She sold the oil, paid her creditors and had some left over to live on.
This miraculous event often goes unnoticed, as do hundreds of other mind-blowing miracles recounted throughout the Bible, yet we pick on a far lesser miraculous event that happened after the Bible was written and mark it annually with an 8-day celebration replete with oil, wicks, candles, menorahs, dreidles, latkes, foil-wrapped chocolates, special prayers and songs of thanksgiving.
Why not commemorate the day Elisha did the oil thing for that nice widow? Or the day he resurrected a dead boy? Or the day he turned 2 loaves of bread into hundreds? Or the day the earth stood still for Joshua (Joshua 10:13)? Or the day Moses drew forth water from a rock (Exodus 17:6)? What’s so special about the miracle of the oil in the days of the Maccabees in the Chanukah story versus the miracle of the oil in the days of Elisha?
Chanukah is special. The great miraculous events of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha and so on, while they far surpassed the miracle of Chanukah, were miracles intended for those moments in which they occurred, and specifically for the people of those times.
The miracle of Chanukah, on the other hand, was a sign for all times. It wasn’t the miracle so much as the effort. They stood up to the Syrian Greeks even thought they were so much more powerful. They lit the one cruise of oil even though it wasn’t sufficient. They did all this trusting Gd that it would be ok. It was the effort that initiated these miracles that inspired the Jewish people toward self-preservation: to teach us in every generation and under any social or political circumstance, that we are to continue being who we are even if we don’t have access to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and even if we don’t have pure olive oil to light the Sacred Lamps, and even if we have lost our independence and are forced to live under foreign rule, and even if we are exiled from our homeland and persecuted. We are to continue to be who we are no matter what life throws at us!
As a people, we have learned from Chanukah the art of survival as a people. They took away our Temple and drove us from our altar, but that didn’t stop us from continuing to study the rites of the altar and the Temple. They exiled us from our homeland, but that didn’t stop us from continuing to study and observe the holidays surrounding life in our homeland like Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and Tu Bishvat.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: For more than 2,000 years the Jewish people have been in love with Jerusalem and preoccupied with remembering her and longing for her—a loyalty and connection of a people to a land that is unequalled in human history. She occupied our hearts, filled our prayers, pervaded our dreams. Continually mourning her loss, our grief was not subdued when celebrating festivities, when arranging a dinner table, when painting our homes. No meal was concluded without imploring: “Build Jerusalem, speedily, in our own days…” The 2 most solemn occasions of the year, the Seder on Passover, and the Day of Atonement, found their climax in the proclamation: “Next year in Jerusalem.” (An Echo of Eternity, Jewish Lights, 1997, p. 26-27).
What gave us this stamina? This relentless sense of tenacious hope and faith in ourselves as an indestructible people? Chanukah: where with faith in Gd we stood up to forces much more powerful than us. We didn’t have enough oil for more than a day, but we seized the day and made it holy and miraculously it lasted. Historians like Arnold Toynbee have suggested that the Jewish people should have disappeared from the face of the earth more than 1,000 years ago. We weren’t supposed to last, but we’re still here celebrating Jewish life! At one point during WWII, the Nazis were poised to conquer the world as they mercilessly killed 6 million of our own…and now we light the menorah at the Brandenburg Gate celebrating religious freedom!
The word Chanukah means “dedication,” so named because after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian Greeks, they cleansed and rededicated the Temple which had been defiled. On this Chanukah, may we rededicate ourselves—like the Maccabees of old—to Jewish life and Torah and fill the world with Gd’s light. May our response to help Israel in its current crisis to put out the fires of destruction be a shining beacon inspiring the world to rededicate themselves to help repairing Gd’s world. On this Chanukah, go out and do something to bring more of Gd’s light to this world. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis