What is Hanukkah?


What is the miracle of Hanukkah, anyway? The rabbis of our Talmud ask this question, and the ensuing discussion is a short one – a rarity for our long-winded predecessors. On the 25th day of Kislev, we commence eight days of celebration.

We do so not because our people (the Hasmoneans) withstood the oppressive forces of the Greeks, but rather because they were able to glean eight days of light out of oil that was sufficient for only one. That’s the miracle. That’s why everything we eat for eight straight days has to be dipped, fried, doused, sautéed or simply bathed in oil.

Can that really be it, though? Is this minute miracle of oil that didn’t burn out (reminding us of a bush that didn’t burn out, either) enough to mark a holiday of eight full days, putting it on par with Passover? Is eight days of high-efficiency oil on the level with the emancipation of our people from 400 years of brutal slavery? To reference the great management book “QBQ: the Question Behind the Question”  – what’s the “miracle behind the miracle” here?

The deeper miracle at work here is that – for as long as we have been in existence – the Jewish people have made more with less. We have been minorities in strange lands for generations upon generations, and everywhere we land, we make an impact on the broader society that far outweighs commensurate expectations. While American stereotypes of Jewish power are often overblown (22 percent of Americans think that Jews run Hollywood), it’s no coincidence that Jews make the news regularly for advances in science, technology, academics, finance, entertainment and anywhere else we have chosen to venture. We may be fewer than 2 percent of the population, but our impact is far greater.

So, too, with our great state of Rhode Island.  We may be the smallest in the union by geographical footprint, but we’re regularly among the leading states in so many important ways.  However, the recent poverty study, “Living on the Edge,” has evidenced for our people that – once again – we must do more with less. We have a great deal of need in our community, and fewer resources to meet those needs. But there is a light – a bright one, indeed – for us, and that light shines from within our great state, within our great people. We have survived these odds before, and we will continue to thrive as we have always managed to do. We will do so with the generous sharing of time, talent, and treasure, and by putting people before programs, nourishment before narishkeit (triviality).

“What is the miracle of Hanukkah?” our rabbis wonder. Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask today, in Rhode Island, is this: “Who is the miracle of Hanukkah?” We are.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck (ebabchuck@teprov.org, Twitter: @ElanBabchuck) is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Providence.