When driving on a roadtrip in the middle of the night, I become keenly aware of light. Sometimes, when a full moon shines, it doesn’t even feel like night. I can see the road ahead for miles. There is a certain calm and confidence about reaching the destination ahead. On darker nights, it’s a different story. The headlights only shine so far, and beyond them is an unknown. I find myself fixated on the red lamps on the backs of any car ahead. Strangely, although there is an underlying tenseness when driving in these dark conditions, I also feel much deeper gratitude for even the few lights present.
While there is less calm, there is a unique feeling of hopefulness and cherishing the small illuminations that guide me on the way.
In many ways, this experience is a helpful way of looking at the miracles of Hanuka. In Jewish tradition, miracles can be things that are supernatural, like when there was only enough oil to light the Temple’s Menora for one day but it lasted for eight. These kinds of miracles are like a full moon at night. When we consider them, we are left with a sense of confidence and our path forward feels clear. But miracles can also be made of natural elements that when we pause and reflect on them, nevertheless inspire wonder, hope, and gratitude. The Maccabees’ victory despite being vastly outnumbered and in possession of much fewer resources serves as an example for this type. These are like the dots of light from headlights and brake lights on the dark road. They don’t illuminate the whole path, and with only them as guides, we still experience uncertainty. But in some ways, that can make us more grateful for what they do offer.
There is something else about this second kind of miracle that makes them especially important. That is, unlike the supernatural miracles which often feel like they belong to a different time, the natural, commonplace type of miracle is actually occurring all the time. In fact, when we say the blessings over the Hanuka candles, some suggest that we are not only giving thanks for the supernatural miracles that occurred in the past, but also those natural, commonplace miracles that
continue each and every day. How so? The al hanisim blessing over the Hanuka candles reads, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of all, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in days of old at this time.” However, there is a version of this blessing that adds one word in the final
phrase. It expresses thanks for the miracles done, “for our ancestors in days of old and at this time.” The validity of this version has been debated, but Rabbi Shemtob Gaugine (19th-20th century Israel, Egypt, and England) defended it based upon our daily liturgy. He writes, “In my humble opinion, the supporters of the custom of saying ‘and at this time’ are justified by what we recite in the daily Amida where we say, ‘We give thanks to You…for the miracles that are with us each day, and for Your wonders and goodness that occur at all moments, evening, morning and afternoon…’”
For Rabbi Gaugine, the gratitude for miracles we express on Hanuka embraces both the wonders that occurred in the age of the Maccabees, and those wonders that happen to us every day, as reflected in the fact that we have a daily blessing that acknowledges them, Hanuka or not. Our tradition teaches that these kinds of miracles are things like a functioning body, waking up in the morning and breathing. Take a moment and consider, what are the daily things that we experience
that when we slow down enough, are truly awe-inspiring? As we light and bless the Hanuka lamps this year, we can call them to mind and deepen our sense of gratitude for those everyday miracles.
As we reach the end of a year like 2020 and look to 2021, many of us long for the full moon in the night to show us where we are going. We yearn for a greater sense of calm and certainty. There is something quite reasonable about that. However, let us not forget that with or without the moon, there are smaller lights all around. And while they don’t give the illumination that we sometimes
hope for, take it from someone who has driven on the road on many late nights: those small, persistent lights are enough to get us where we need to go.