What is the miracle of Chanukah? Ask and you’ll hear something like: “The oil lasted for eight days, when it was only enough for one day.” Then why celebrate for eight days, if the first day’s light wasn’t miraculous at all? On the first day there was sufficient oil. We knew it would burn. There was no surprise. It was a natural kind of light, so why sing of miracles on the first night of Chanukah? Why offer the blessing about miracles – “she’asah nisim” – on the first night? These words seem superfluous, even inaccurate, for the first night’s candle.
Shouldn’t we only celebrate the seven “miraculous” days of Chanukah? Ask and you’ll hear 100 answers. Literally. More than 100 answers to this very question were compiled in the Middle Ages.
What was the miracle of the first day? Ask at your own Chanukah party and you’ll hear something like: perhaps the miracle of the first day was that the few bands of Maccabees defeated the great and mighty Assyrian-Greek army. Perhaps the miracle of the first day was that Jews remained Jews despite the allure of Hellenism; that religious expression was embraced and the Temple rededicated. Perhaps the miracle of the first day was that the factions of Jews then saw a brother in the eyes of the other and decided not to completely tear each other apart.
And perhaps the miracle of the first day was simply the human capacity for hope. When the Maccabees lit the lamp with the only remaining cruse of pure oil, they didn’t expect it to last, but they lit it anyway, so the story goes. Maybe that’s the miracle of the first candle. Call it hope, faith, determination or perseverance. They could have waited for certainty, but instead they worked with what they had and opened the door for another kind of miracle to take hold. We can imagine our ancestors saying to one another, “Even if it will sputter out tomorrow, let us celebrate with light today.” By their own strong hands and their own strong faith they invited the Divine to enter. The miracle of Jewish hope and the defeat of human cynicism are celebrated throughout the festival of Chanukah, but especially when we light the first night’s candle.
In the 13th century, Nachmanides reflected on miracles. When commenting on Exodus 13:16, he distinguishes between miracles “hidden” and miracles “revealed.” The splitting of the Red Sea is considered a miracle, because it was supernatural, but Nachmanides teaches that the very rules of nature are themselves miracles. The fact that gravity has not given out on us even once is a “hidden miracle.” The fact that our pupils automatically dilate to let in the right amount of light to enable us to see is a “hidden miracle.” Einstein’s theory of the physics of light calls attention to another series of “hidden miracles.” Candles numbers 2 to 8 may stand for the “revealed miracles.” Candle No. 1 stands for the countless “hidden miracles” of Chanukah.
The first candle is my favourite candle. One thin candle alone on the windowsill stands for that good Jewish impulse to work with what we’ve got and carve out a way for more light. The first candle receives the most praise and has the greatest impact. Each night it is relit and finds itself, miraculously, in more and more good company. This is the Jewish way. The days of revealed miracles may be behind us. But hidden miracles are everywhere. It’s up to a keen observer to behold their power.