Miracle Meditations for Hanukah
by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
What was the miracle of Hanukah? Was it the unlikely victory of the few fighting for religious freedom over the mighty army they opposed? Was it the unlikely coalition of pietists, assimilationists, and centrists who all shared in that fight? Was it the miracle that a cruse of oil, large enough to light the menorah in the Temple for only one day, lasted for eight days – the exact period of time needed to purify more oil? Yes, yes, and yes!
And how did that one cruse happen to be preserved? Was it a miracle, a gift, from God? Or perhaps a priest or visitor to the Temple hid that cruse just before the enemy entered and desecrated the holy site, the way Jews hid and buried Torah scrolls during the Holocaust. Heroes acted on the hope that victory, somehow, would come, and Light would again be wanted. Such faith in the face of imminent destruction is nothing short of miraculous.
It is a miracle that Jews, in the days of the Maccabees and today, have managed to survive despite the appeal and acceptance of the general culture (disappearance through assimilation) and, equally, despite the ugly under-belly of intolerance in society (destruction through anti-Semitism, oppression, and war).
It is a miracle that Jews who love and absorb the dominant culture are nevertheless willing to die for the right to remain Jews.
It is a miracle that people possessed of few resources dare to do great things. Remember: a small band of fighters, a tiny cruse of oil, one “little” idea can change everything.
The Maccabbees might have kept the Temple dark for another week, waiting for enough purified oil to be prepared, so that the menorah could shine uninterrupted. But they started with what little they had. They did what they could, and God did the rest.
We talk about the Hanukah miracle, but Hanukah miracles abound. My father, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, is only partly joking when he says, “The real miracle of Hanukah is that five sons listened to one father!”
This season, let us remember the miracles that happened “during that season at this time.” And let us remember, too, the Hanukah miracles that happen still today: miracles of commitment, bravery, faith, light, loyalty to the holy, and opposition to the unholy.
The following are meditations on the miracles of Hanukah, day by day. I have tried to imagine those first eight days in the rededicated Temple. What ideas and emotions came up, when the cruse lasted longer than anyone had a right to expect? What was the consequent call to action?
Day 1 – Miracle Meditation for the First Candle and the First Day of Hanukah
You could argue that there was no miracle on the first day. If the cruse had enough oil to last for one day, then the light of the first day was natural, normal. Only the light on subsequent days was supernatural, miraculous.
But that misses the essential miracle: that we have light at all, that we are here at all, that what we need comes to us and serves us – predictably, just has we have come to rely on and expect.
Breath sustains me. It’s a regular occurrence. It happens thousands of times a day. And it is still a miracle.
The light of the first candle thus reminds us of all our “mundane” miracles.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the first candle or during the first day of Hanukah and consider:
What are the miracles in the “facts” and “entitlements” and “normal” progress of my daily existence?
Day 2 – Miracle Meditation for the Second Candle and the Second Day of Hanukah
The miracle of the second candle is one of surprise, joy, and delight. With the benefit of hindsight, and with the story so entrenched in Jewish culture and consciousness, we have to work to imagine the shock and celebration that must have ensued when the light burned past its time.
Picture the scene: Jews are gathered around the newly purified Temple. They hold one another, celebrating the victory, supporting one another over the losses. The light that is about to go out in the Menorah represents another loss, another bit of damage inflicted by the enemy. They want to bask in the Light and the victory for as long as it will last.
There is a debate among the Jews over whether to continue fighting for complete political independence, or to be satisfied with having beaten the enemy back. The flame of the Menorah, now about to go out, is a symbol that either side could invoke. “We have our menorah back: purify the oil, focus on holy, and light the flame of faith again.” Or: “we must endure more darkness. Therefore, purify the oil, focus on the holy, and don’t abandon the fight until it is done. “
Before any of these thoughts are spoken, a buzz starts to go through the crowd. First one person and then another realizes that the flame has been burning “too long.” There is more light, more hope, than they had dared to expect. Soon everyone is cheering and singing. The Light will not go out! The political choice is still before them, but the spiritual promise matters more. The Light will not go out!
Take a few quiet moments in front of the second candle or during the second day of Hanukah and consider:
What are the miracles of joy, surprise, and delight in your life?
Was there a time when you were you recovering from loss, and preparing to face the future, when you got a gift – a sudden surge of hope, of Light, a promise for the future?
Day 3 – Miracle Meditation for the Third Candle and the Third Day of Hanukah
The third candle is a time of trepidation. The community witnessed a miracle: an extra day of light. But would it last?
Each of us, no matter how pious or secure, has fears and doubts. Yes, God saved me last time, but will I be spared again? Yes, my first child was born healthy, but what if this pregnancy goes wrong? Yes, my needs have been supplied until now, but how will I survive in this economy?
Some of the answers depend on us; the Maccabbees succeeded and are celebrated because they took action. But when the action is taken – e.g., the cruse is lit – sometimes all you can do it wait and watch. And the only question is: how you will wait? Will you be sick with worry, or can you say with the Psalmist, “you maintain my fate, God…I have a goodly heritage…therefore, my heart is glad, my spirit rejoices, my flesh also dwells secure” (Psalms 16:9)?
Take a few quiet moments in front of the third candle or during the third day of Hanukah and consider:
What miracles have you experienced in times of trepidation?
What were your sources of strength then? What were your lessons? Do you consider those miracles?
Day 4 – Miracle Meditation for the Fourth Candle and on the Fourth Day of Hanukah
The fourth day represents a time of celebration and confidence. A chazakah, a precedent, has been set. After three days of miraculous Light, trepidation lifts. Relief and joy take its place. We begin to “own” the miracle, to count it as our own.
In serious illness and recovery, there is typically a “fourth day” energy. It may manifest in the fourth week or the fourth month or even on the fourth year anniversary of a diagnosis. But whenever it happens, it represents a shift. You are no longer a “cancer patient,” or a “sick person” or a “drug addict.” You are a survivor; you are a person in recovery; you are someone who has grace and grit enough to claim your miracles. There are no guarantees of what will come tomorrow, but you rest comfortably and gratefully in God’s hands.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the fourth candle or during the fourth day of Hanukah and consider:
When did you “turn a corner” in your faith? Was there a time when you felt you felt you would be OK, regardless of the outcome or circumstances?
Have you ever felt that you received a message or sign or dream (perhaps one that repeated), which offered you comfort and sustained you?
Day 5 – Miracle Meditation for the Fifth Candle and the Fifth Day of Hanukah
Imagine the light burning miraculously in the ancient temple. Day one was daring – they lit the light, knowing it would go out after just one day. Day two was stunning – it lasted! Day three was nerve-racking – but it lasted again. Day four was celebratory – it brought confidence. Day five was – at least for some – “old news. “
Day five is a “miracle danger zone.” It represents the possibility of ennui, of taking miracles for granted.
When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave public lectures in the evening, he would often begin by saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, a great miracle just happened.” People would lean forward, eager to know about the great miracle that coincided with the arrival of a great spiritual leader. And Heschel would report, "The sun just went down." Some people would laugh; others would shake their heads in disappointment. Then Heschel would speak about “radical amazement,” wonder, and awe.
If a sunset happened once every 50 years, everyone would gather round and watch, enraptured. But it happens every day, and so we take it for granted.
One message of the fifth day is that the miraculous is not limited to the infrequent. In fact, the greatest miracles, and the ones that influence our lives most, are the repetitive daily miracles which become transparent to us.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the fifth candle or during the fifth day of Hanukah and consider:
What are the miracles you experience daily?
Take some time in meditation to truly connect with the miracles that are with you, as the prayer book puts it “every day, constantly, evening, morning, and noon.”
Day 6 – Miracle Meditation for the Sixth Candle and the Sixth Day of Hanukah
The sixth day is a time of reclaiming awe. Following a period when you have taken something for granted, mindfulness can bring not just a restoration of gratitude, but a whole new level of appreciation.
Our bodies are a gift. We know that health is a blessing which must be guarded. Nevertheless, we sleep too little, eat poorly, neglect exercise, and succumb to stress. We take our physical resilience for granted. Then, sometimes, we become ill.
Day six is represented by the energy and thankfulness you feel on the day when you finally feel well, truly well; when you realize that you had forgotten what “feeling well” felt like until just now. Now, you not only appreciate health intellectually and emotionally, you experience health on a whole new level. You will never be able to neglect your self-care so unconsciously again. Now, you know.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the sixth candle or during the sixth day of Hanukah and consider:
Based on your past trials and miracles, what do you know deeply? What do you value deeply?
Are there any limits or boundaries you now choose to set, because of trials or miracles you have experienced?
Day 7 – Miracle Meditation for the Seventh Candle and the Seventh Day of Hanukah
Seven is a number that represents spiritual completion or perfection. The “perfect” example is Shabbat, the completion and perfection of creation.
It is obvious that we are all always imperfect. We are all always working on ourselves, learning, and growing. Yet, some matters are closed and concluded. Each of us has overcome certain sins; we can each name past temptations that simply no longer tempt us. Each of us has grown and improved in some lasting ways.
Day seven represents the completion, the perfection of a miracle.
Are there miracles that have been completed in your life, miracles you now trust and rely upon? For example, perhaps you had a falling out with a family member and now your relationship is healed. You don’t take that miracle for granted, but you do feel secure in it. It won’t disappear tomorrow. The relationship is solid, and the miracle of the healing is firmly in place.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the seventh candle or during the seventh day of Hanukah and consider:
Are there miracles you are still working toward or trying to manifest in your life, which are actually complete?
What can you do to give thanks for, and rest in the assurance of, the completed, perfected miracles in your life?
Day 8 – Miracle Meditation for the Eighth Candle and the Eighth Day of Hanukah
The eighth day represents moving from spiritual intention to physical enactment. The ultimate example of this is brit milah. On the eighth day, we bring a child into the covenant with a ritual that marks Jewish identity on his body. Another great biblical example of “eighth day energy” is the Tabernacle. Spiritual preparation lasts one week; on the eighth day, the first sacrifice is brought. Potential is realized through action.
This last sentence is telling, because it is a valid summary of the message of Hanukah. “Potential is realized through action.” If you don’t fight the battle, if you don’t light the flame, you will never know what miracles might have resulted. The Maccabees didn’t wait for a specific Divine directive. They were activists, and that is part of what we celebrate this holiday.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the eighth candle or during the eighth day of Hanukah and consider:
What actions can you take to help bring about miracles in your own life?
What actions can you take to help bring about miracles for the Jewish people?
What actions can you take to help bring about miracles for your loved ones?
What actions can you take to help bring about miracles for strangers?
Now, in the spirit of the holiday, take action! Even if it’s just one small step, move forward. Gather momentum, and set a miracle in motion.
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