Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

A Chanukah Lesson: How to Find What You Are Not Looking For, Especially in Hard Times

When the Jews entered the Temple after their victory against foreign dominance and reestablished Jewish control over Israel, they found a small jug of oil. They lit the Menorah with this oil. Miraculously, it burned for eight days. A year later the rabbis established an eight-day celebration to commemorate this miracle.

Before we can take a lesson from this story, let us make a few observations.

  • The Jews won a war.
  • They went on to clean the temple and found something that they were NOT looking for: a small jog of oil that lasted for eight days.
  • They now have two reasons to celebrate:winning the war and the open miracle of the oil.
  • A year later, the rabbis establish the anniversary as a holiday. The focal point of the celebration is not on the war, but on the oil.

These observations lead to a  new question. Why is it that the main point of the whole war (to reestablish Jewish control) becomes secondary to the celebration of the holiday, which is to commemorate the miracle of finding the oil?

Let's take the question further. When the Jews entered the Temple to clean up, they were not necessarily even looking for pure oil. According to Jewish law, they could have used contaminated oil. They simply went in to clean up the mess.  Why make such a big deal out of finding the oil?

The answer lies in the question. The fact that they had found something that they were not looking for achieves its own considerable significance. It is why G-d made the miracle happen. It becomes, for all of us, the reason to celebrate.

Let me explain.

Two separate events took place: the victory in war and the miracle of the oil. To commemorate the triumph, the rabbis encourage us to include in our celebration an awareness of this time as "days of joy". However, we should not confuse or merge this celebration with the finding of the oil. According to the rabbis, this is not a cause for celebration. They specifically designate the days of Chanukah as ones of "thanks and recognition" for the miracle that G-d has performed.  
“Days of joy” are a means of celebrating a physical victory.

Days of “thanksgiving and recognition” of G-d’s miracles are meant to awaken within us a desire to connect with G-d. This takes effort and a special kind of awareness on our part.

After a year, the Rabbis saw that the Jewish people had internalized the miracle of the oil. Yes, it was good that they had won the war. But more importantly, they had reconnected to G-d. They had found their "inner oil”. Then and only then was the holiday of Chanukah established.

This teaches us a very significant lesson. What should be important is not whether we win or lose a “war”.  More important is what we do with the “oil” that we find within ourselves, even if we were not looking for it in the first place.

In recent months, my family has lost two “wars” with the deaths of two of our young brothers. For these deaths we mourn --- just as there is reason for celebrating when we win, there is very good reason to mourn when we lose. I know this. However, I also know that we must go on and “kindle” the Chanukah candles in hopes that we may find some “oil” that we are not even looking for. Only if I open my heart and soul to this search will G-d be able to make a miracle for me ... indeed, for all who suffer and mourn.

Embracing the spirit of Chanukah -- opening all doors to G-d's unexpected blessings, with all our heart and all our soul and all our might -- will allow us to “find some oil”. It may be very little that we find. When we suffer, the oil of renewal may indeed seem very sparse. But very little can burn for very long. G-d can, G-d will, make a miracle for us when we least expect it.

Finding this good does not take the place of mourning the loss of any war we fight. It happens because of the mourning. We find the good from what we have lost. That, to me, in this sad time for my family, is the lesson of Chanukah.


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