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The Danger of Miracles: Thoughts on Chanukah and Oil

Post by Jewish Farm School Rabbinic Intern, Josh Boydstun – Reposted from Jewish Farmer's Almanac

Chanukah—the Festival of Lights—offers us a joyous, eight-day respite from the cold, dark month of Kislev (November 14-December 13, 2012). Beginning on 25 Kislev (sundown on December 8), Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, following the successful Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century BCE. (In Hebrew, “Chanukah” means “dedication, consecration.”)

Perhaps the most notable Chanukah tradition is the lighting of a nine-branched menorah (candelabrum), which symbolizes the well-known miracle of Chanukah. According to the Babylonian Talmud:

When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that bore the seal of the High Priest undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings. (Shabbat 21b)

It is curious to note that this Talmudic discussion of the history, laws and customs of Chanukah is actually a brief tangent in a far more extensive treatment of the laws that govern the suitability of various wicks and fuels for Shabbat lights. Clearly, the holiness and purity of various oils and fuels were crucial to Temple worship.

As Jews concerned with the environment and sustainability, how might we understand Chanukah’s oil-related miracle? Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that the miracle of Chanukah represents “G-d’s conservation of energy….The story teaches that G-d worked WITH the earth, made it possible for one day’s worth of oil to last eight days.” For Rabbi Waskow, Chanukah enshrines the value of conservation and teaches us to trust in the bounty of Creation. This is certainly an attractive interpretation and an indispensible lesson, but I am afraid that I do not find it particularly convincing.

Much more thought-provoking, in my opinion, is the observation of Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, an 18th-century Polish-German Talmud scholar. In Penei Yehoshua, Falk points out that, presumably, there was sufficient impure oil to light the candelabrum for a number of days. According to halakhah (rabbinic law), it would have been acceptable to kindle the Temple candelabrum with this impure oil, particularly under the circumstances of widespread war and death. So why did the priests opt to use their only cruse of pure oil? The answer, Falk suggests, is that the priests wanted to rededicate the Temple according to the most stringent standards of purity. Likewise, “the miracle, which made it unnecessary to use impure oil, demonstrates the great love that G-d has for His people, Israel.”

This notion of striving for purity and, in doing so, consuming the last pure quantity of something hardly seems like a convincing model of conservation. After all, the priests had no way of knowing that the oil would miraculously last for eight days, until more pure oil could be procured. In their quest for the highest degree of purity, one might argue, they rejected perfectly acceptable fuel and apparently hoped for the best. Does the fact that G-d rewarded them for this with a miracle make their choice any more acceptable or responsible? What does this teach us about the relative merits of hope and purity, both as moral values and as strategies for responsible, sustainable living?

I am afraid that such questions do not invite easy answers—neither from our Jewish traditions nor from contemporary discussions about environmental sustainability. They do however shine some light on the dangers of blind faith and vain hope. In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, environmentalist Bill McKibben writes: “By burning every gallon of oil and cubic meter of gas and ton of coal we could find, we’ve managed to end the climatic stability that’s marked human civilization. We’ve also managed to bet our entire economy on the belief that these supplies will last forever, a bet we’re now in the process of losing.” Similarly, physicist and editor of Climate Progress Joe Romm has criticized Bill Gates’ 2010 call for “energy miracles.” In Romm’s opinion, hoping for miracles or other game-changing solutions usually just serves to defer critical action to major problems. McKibben and Romm certainly would not dispute the importance of hope, but they refuse to wait for miracles in the face of daunting challenges that demand immediate action.

Returning to the story of Chanukah, we know in hindsight that the priests’ gamble paid off: They chose only the purest and best oil, which miraculously lasted. Through their faith and their hope, they succeeded in shedding light in a dark place, during a dark time of war, suffering and death. Stories about miracles and long-shot victories are indispensible for driving away despair and sustaining our vision of a brighter future. And yet, I have to hope that if the miracle had not arrived—if the flame of the Temple menorah had begun to flicker and fail—the priests would not have been too proud to compromise with their ideal notion of purity and to accept that there are few convenient or comfortable answers to the problem of how we can keep the lights on, both literally and figuratively.

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