One of the well known questions about Chanukah is why we celebrate for eight nights rather than seven. After all, the miracle of the oil only began after the first day was over. The jug of oil they found was expected to last a full day. The miracle thus only began on the second day, when it continued to burn after it should have been over. Why then do we mark all eight days when the miracle was only seven of those?
There are countless answers to this question. There is a book published which deals with this question exclusively and has compiled 500 answers within its pages. And there are answers offered that don’t appear in the book. We will look at just one idea that helps explain why we celebrate eight nights.
The battle of the Hasmonean group against the powerful army of the ancient Greeks was not a political battle. The Greek empire was relatively benign toward the Jews. All they wished was for the Jews to stop being different, to cease from practicing those archaic traditions and to put away those books of study that inspired those practices. They wanted the Jews to be ‘cultured’ as they were; to enjoy the arts and engage in sports; to watch the superbowl and eat Chinese food. A great number of Jews happily embraced the Greek way of life, possibly the majority of Jews.
A small group resisted. The Hasmonean family refused to part with its traditional way of life. They refused to give up their practices and they refused to relinquish their books. They were in physical danger because the Greeks enforced their rule by penalty of death. They armed themselves to protect their way of life, facing a foe many times their number. The Hasmoneans were not specially trained and they had no access to sophisticated weapons. By any calculations they didn’t stand a chance. But they were going to try, even if they would die trying. They had to give it their best shot and leave the rest up to God. Their fellow Jews thought they were crazy. Not only were they lunatics, their aims did not have merit in the first place! I suspect such a group would come under even harsher criticism today from their fellow Jews, but never mind that.
We know the results. Miraculously the small Hasmonean militia defeated the mighty Greek army and they returned to the Temple to clean it up and rededicated it. They found that their stock of pure oil had been smashed and violated by the Greeks. There was just one flask that was pure but it wouldn’t suffice to keep the menorah lit until they could produce a new stock. They had every right and reason to use the impure oil. What was the point of using the pure oil if it wouldn’t last for nearly enough time? Why begin something they could not finish? The flames would die after a day and they would be back to square one! Halachically it was permissible for them to use impure oil under those circumstances. Nevertheless they had a conviction to start it the right way. Just as they had marched into battle facing impossible odds because it was the only way forward they similarly put their single flask of oil to work although it was far from sufficient.
This willpower, the resolve they had to use the oil in the first place, despite the overwhelming odds against any real good coming from it, is the reason we celebrate on the first day of Chanukah. That resolve itself was nothing short of miraculous. To have the courage to march into battle against a foe so powerful, to display the audacity of relighting the menorah with ideal, pure oil when there is no reserve for tomorrow, that shows the greatness of human resolve.
It also shows the way forward. We believe that it all begins and ends with our resources. We think that it is all up to us. Normally this is the appropriate way to calculate. Some people have great faith in their credit card, using it like the oil in the Chanukah story – they can spend and spend and their credit never ends. It doesn’t work that way. We must only purchase that which we can afford. But in matters of spiritual value, matters in which we cannot see how it is possible to come out the other end, we need to take the plunge and do our best. We may not see ourselves as having the capacity to ensure our children get a proper Jewish education. We may view Shabbat observance as an insurmountable challenge. With a truly maccabeean effort, however, we can make a start and give it our best. The Lord can surprise us sometimes and make our goals possible to meet in unexpected ways.