Sunday, December 21, 2008

So nu, what's the miracle?

We all know the story: a little bit of oil, lasting for 8 days -- it's a neis, a miracle!  And thus the obligation to place the menorah someplace visible from the outside, to fulfill Pirsum Nisa, publicizing the miraculous event.

But there's a little problem, here on the first night.  If there was a day's supply of oil, then what exactly is the miracle for the first day?

A literalist might say, look, we're celebrating all eight days, so of course we have to start with the first day.  A physicist might say, perhaps an eighth of the oil was consumed each day, so the in-progress miracle was already visible (similar to a derivation from the Beit Yosef).  The midrashist might draw connections to the eight days of sukkot (though sukkot is really seven, plus shmini atzeret).  Reasonable explanations, true; but not deeply satisfying.

A Zionist or Maccaebean zealot might say, it's a different miracle that's being celebrated on the first day -- the nitzachon, the military victory.  Although all traces of that perspective have been erased from the gemara and halachah, there's a germ of a different idea here.  For an essential question behind any military undertaking is -- to put it baldly -- is God on our side?  And how would we know?

Most miracles don't even look like miracles.  They're b'derekh teva, clothed in the appearance of the natural order of things.  The crazy coincidences of the Purim megillah; the almost-slapstick but actually-heroics of Judith's Chanukah triumph; the impossible not-misses of meeting one's b'shert; the annoying red light that, unbeknownst to anyone, avoids the fatal car accident --no one is forced to see the hand of ha-Shem in these kinds of miracles.  The hashgacha pratit is known only to the extent one wishes to know it.

So perhaps the neis of this first night, is the neis b'derekh teva; the nisim that we are entirely immersed in, on all nights and at every moment.  And the true neis is that, the more we become of aware of those miracles, the more obvious the miracles become, the brighter the light shines, throughout the eight days of the chanukiah, throughout this solstice-marking holiday, through the entire season of gradually increasing light, into the era when the light hidden away for the righteous becomes visible to all.

Chag orim same'ach!

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