As we approach the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, we often talk about the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days and nights. This story is not part of the Torah, and some parts might be exaggerated, but the story of Hanukkah fits the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition of a miracle: “an event that is not explicable by natural causes alone.”
The Hanukkah story says that Judah Maccabee and his brothers fought the Greeks to retake the Temple in Jerusalem. The Greeks had desecrated the Temple, so the Maccabees set to work cleaning up and re-consecrating the Temple. At the time of the Temple, the Israelites kept an eternal light burning in the Temple. When the Maccabees were ready to relight the eternal flame, they discovered that there was only one day’s worth of oil for the lamp. Unfortunately, the process to make olive oil that was pure enough for the eternal light took eight days, so the Maccabees lit the eternal light and prayed while they worked to get more oil. The miracle of this story is that the little bit of oil they had lasted for the eight days it took them to make more oil.
What makes this a miracle? Well, the burn rate of oil was well known at the time because it was an important source of light at that time. Oil was a precious resource, and so it was conserved even under the best circumstances. Making the oil last eight times as long as usual would have been a pretty wondrous event that could have not been explained by natural causes.
Miracles like the one in the Hanukkah story may be rare, but it is important to remember that miracles happen every day. Some are more subtle and open to interpretation.
Jewish wisdom says that we should not be pompous enough to pray for a miracle or to call something in our lives a miracle. However, whether we call it a miracle or not, we should take the time to notice the small but wondrous moments in our own lives that we cannot explain. Moments like when a child is born or a stranger steps into to help us at precisely the right moment. These magical moments have the power to make us appreciate when and where we are and they give us pause about our purpose in life. I hope that each of you has a holiday season filled with magical moments with your children and loved ones.
Head of School