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Hanukkah

On Observing Hanukkah Miracles, Big and Small

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“MOMMY! MOMMY! THE CANDLES BURNT OUT!” My 6-year-old daughter’s voice came wailing up the stairs while I was getting dressed this morning. “That’s not how it’s supposed to go! The miracle is that they stayed lit for eight nights! What happened to our miracle?”

“Well, sweetie, that’s not our miracle. That was the miracle in the Temple so long ago, but today we have different miracles. The candles of Hanukkah remind us to notice the miracles that happen for us, now, in our lives.”

I’ve been trying to notice those miracles. I really have. But with everything that’s been happening in our nation and our world this past year, it can be hard to find them. Even during Hanukkah.

And besides, it seems as though everything is a miracle these days. Each baby born is a miracle. The car started after the battery died. It’s a miracle! I got the last everything bagel at the local bakery this morning; it’s nothing short of a miracle.

I’m as guilty of this as the next person, and I sometimes worry that throwing the word around cheapens it a bit. If everything from a bagel to a battery is a miracle, how do we know when we have truly stumbled across something truly miraculous?

I drove my girls to school this morning. It’s grey and rainy out and I didn’t sleep well due to a persistent cough. I felt tired and dreary, and I was daydreaming about how nice it would be to put my kindergartner on a bus to the local public school instead of schlepping her across town to the Jewish day school we enrolled her in this past fall.

“Mommy! Did you hear me? I said I called God on my special God phone!”

My 4-year-old’s cheery voice grabbed my attention. “You called God? What did God say?”

“That we’re so lucky to be Jewish because we get to light Hanukkah candles and eat latkes and play dreidel and we’re free because God sent the frogs and the itchy cows and the ice and then the slaves were free from Pharaoh.”

All of a sudden, my perspective shifted, and I was reminded of the miracles that I am so grateful for every year around this time. My daughters are proud to be Jewish. My older girl attends a pluralistic Jewish day school where families from every denomination and style of Judaism choose to come together to learn, pray, and celebrate–not despite their differences, but because they believe in the power of pluralism to strengthen and grow the Jewish community.

I guess this isn’t officially a miracle, “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs,” as Merriam-Webster would say. A group of people with a common vision got together, made a plan, raised some money, and opened a school. It happens all the time. No big deal, right?

Except. Except if history tells us anything, it shouldn’t have happened. From Pharaoh to the Holocaust, there were innumerable opportunities for the Jewish people to be completely decimated. And some communities were. But not all of them; some survived. And they had children. And they told their children the stories of our people. They taught them the prayers and the rituals that had sustained them through so much suffering. And those children grew up and survived and had their own children, and some of them grew up to be leaders and visionaries in our community.

That’s not my story, as I’ve written about before. I didn’t grow up hearing those stories and lighting candles for eight nights each winter. Yet somehow everything fell into place and I ended up in college in a small town in Vermont at the same time as a young man whose family was also in southern Germany decades ago. Nearly 16 years later, here we are, gluing sequins to popsicle stick menorahs and smearing apple sauce on latkes as we teach our daughters the prayers and practices that our great-great-great grandparents taught their children.

Albert Einstein once said that there are two ways to live: as if nothing is a miracle, or as if everything is a miracle. As we light our candles each night without fear or shame, and as my daughters are learning everything I never did, it strikes me that all of those small, seemingly unimportant moments have a way of coming together to create something truly extraordinary. And I am grateful for it.

Happy Hanukkah, everyone. May your lives be filled with all sorts of miracles, great and small.


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