Even as a child, I used to wonder why our ancestors, who had won back Jerusalem and the Temple from the pagan hands of the Seleucids, bothered even lighting the Temple candelabra, knowing they did not have enough oil to burn, but one day. They did not expect any miracle, no miracles of “growing one small flask into many more.” Here lies the profundity of the Chanukah story. It is no mere child’s tale.
The chaos and darkness out of which the Holy One created definition, structure and order persist in some fashion in our world. The Tohu and Vohu represent a spiritual and physical anarchy. (See “Insights of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Discourses on Fundamental Theological Issues in Judaism,” chapter 1, page 6 ).
This has always been a world where moral darkness; the urge to hate others; to degrade others in a myriad of ways; to murder another human being’s sense of self-worth and dignity; planned starvation; violence, and more, are set into our reality. So too is accident, disability, plague, and the suffering these cause, evident in our time.
When our forebears lit the menorah in the ancient Temple, even though they knew there was not enough oil to make the light last as long as they believed necessary, they had the determination and courage to act anyway, to at least make a beginning, to do the right thing even when it was thought the “right thing” was not going be sufficient.
We Jews have always had the courage to make beginnings, and when one or more failed to achieve our dreams fashioned by the Torah, to try again and again, each beginning bringing in its wake, renewed life. This, it seems to me, is one of the miracles we are reminded of by Chanukah: Make a beginning and even if we fail, still it is not a complete failure. We had “light for a time.” And perhaps if we persist with similar effort, we can, with G-d’s help, make enough light for a second day and so on, until the light of goodness and the sweet Holiness of the Divine, together with us, will transform ourselves and our world.
Don Tam is founding rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah.