Rabbi Yosef Caro, the 16th-century sage, asks a fascinating question regarding Hanukkah: Why is it that we celebrate eight days in honor of the miracle of the oil? According to the story, we know that all of the oil in the Temple was either destroyed or made impure and unusable; we know that when the Hasmoneans — Judah Maccabee, his family and all who had joined them to fight the Syrian-Greeks — were finally victorious and came to the Temple to light the menorah, there was no pure oil; we know that only one small jug, still bearing the seal of the High Priest and therefore pure, was found; we know it had only enough oil for one day; we know that the Hasmoneans decided to go ahead and light the oil even for the one day.
And we know that the oil lasted for eight days. But Rabbi Caro raises an interesting point: He says that the actual miraculous part here is only seven days, since the oil in the jug was enough for one day. So the miracle would be only on the other seven days. One of the simplest and best replies to Rabbi Caro’s question comes from a great 17th-century rabbi, Rabbi David Halevi Segal, known as the Turei Zahav. His answer is that the miracle did indeed begin on the very first night: the oil in the one, small jug that was enough for only the one day did not use itself up completely at the end of that one day, as it ought to have done. A small amount of it remained, and on this remaining amount of oil the miracle and the blessing of the continued light was constituted.
Therefore the miracle did definitely begin on that very first night and so we celebrate all eight, miraculous nights of Chanukah. Rabbi Caro’s question is not just an exercise in nitpicking. It gives us the opportunity to consider something of great value.
Although the seemingly insignificant miracle of the first night seems mundane in comparison with the great and obvious miracle of the other seven days, it is in fact the very basis of that ongoing miracle. It is essential.
The Ramban, the great 13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides, differentiates between two kinds of miracles: those that are obvious, self-explanatory, and those that are hidden.
The obvious, super-miracles that seem to deviate from nature are those geared to impress, particularly those of little faith, since they testify in an obvious way to God’s existence. Such, for example, were the miracles and wonders in Egypt, like the rod that turns into a snake and swallows up all the other snakes that the Egyptian priests created with their rods. So also were the Ten Plagues. The sensation of amazement and wonder comes from the impression that these are acts that are impossible to perform, that is, things of wonder, wonder-full things.
As opposed to these obvious miracles, the Ramban’s “hidden” miracles are, in fact, the majority of miracles we encounter over the generations and in everyday life. These hidden miracles can be seen or comprehended only by those who are open and willing to see the wonder in these occurrences. Judaism helps us to maintain sensitivity to everything that happens around us and not to take life for granted. What is simpler than waking up each morning after a night’s sleep? But the Modeh Ani blessing, thanking God for returning us to life, turns this simple act of waking up (which we all take for granted) into a wonder and a miracle that we appreciate anew each and every day.
Think about it for a moment: When we are asleep, we are in a totally vulnerable state. We are totally unaware of what goes on around us and we are in a state of complete inability to defend ourselves and avert danger. The very fact that we come through these hours of sleep safely and awaken healthy, whole and alive — this is truly a miracle deserving of thanksgiving and rejoicing each and every day anew!
Judaism sees miracles as everyday events to such an extent that three times a day we pray: “… we thank You, God, and sing Your praises for Your miracles which are with us every day … which we experience at all times: evening and morning and noontime …”
That is to say, that as far as the Jewish perspective is concerned, we should be aware each and every day and at all times of the miracles and wonders that surround us and are bestowed upon us, and we should appreciate them and rejoice in them.
But are we aware of the smaller, hidden miracles? Are we attentive enough to recognize them in our everyday lives, to enjoy them and rejoice in them? How many of the smaller miracles in our lives are we missing? Are we too busy to see them? Are we impressed only by the more obvious and bigger miracles? Are we too complacent or have we become too cynical to believe that there are miracles in all our lives?
Are we still capable of appreciating the simple and the small? If the answers to these questions are not what you would like them to be, Hanukkah comes along and gives us eight days for introspection, for soul-searching and for changing our lives for the better. That would already be a miracle.