11 December 2009
24 Kislev 5770
Tonight we light the first Chanukah candle. Although I have been saying the blessings over the Chanukah candles since I was a child, I confess that I still sometimes get confused by the striking similarity between the last two words of the second blessing (“sheasa nisim la’avoteinu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh”) and the last two words of the third blessing (“shehecheyanu, v’kiyemanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh”). “Bazman hazeh – at this time” and “lazman hazeh – to this time” are separated by only one Hebrew letter, yet the difference in their meanings for how we understand the miracle of Chanukah and the role of God in our lives is profound. This significance came to light (pardon the pun) for me during a conversation with my 7-year-old son on the way to school Thursday morning.
My son explained to me that there are two miracles of Chanukah: the military victory of a small group of Maccabees over Antiochus and the mighty Assyrian army, and the cruise of oil that lasted eight days even though there was only enough to burn for one. I asked him whether he saw any connections between these two miracles. His first answer was, “They are both miracles.” I resisted rejecting his answer as a tautology and, instead, asked if he had any other ideas. He then suggested that they are both about something small overcoming something large and achieving something that people did not think could be achieved. When I asked about the meaning of the word miracle, he explained that it is when “God is on your side,” as he was for the Maccabees. Then he added, “We had a miracle happen to us the other day at recess when only nine of us from my class (1st grade) defeated the entire second grade class in kickball!”
I thought this was a beautiful understanding of the theme of Chanukah and of the concept of a miracle, especially coming from a small boy. But I was particularly moved by the clarity and simplicity with which a child can perceive the hand of God in the world. Rabbis, philosophers, and theologians debate the meaning and existence of miracles in the world. To me, the beauty of my son’s description of his kickball game was its pre-philosophical, non- (or I prefer trans-) intellectual stance toward the world. At some point when he matures, we will address theological complexities such as why God didn’t want the second graders to win. But for now he could just sense it. God was with them on the kickball field.
The second blessing over the Chanukah candles celebrates Chanukah as an historical event that bears witness to God’s presence in the world, or, at least, in our people’s history. “Bayamim hahem bazman hazeh” – “in those days, at this time” refers to this time of year, the dates on which the Chanukah miracle occurred. Jews love to find God in history, perhaps, because it takes our focus off of our sense of God’s absence in our world today or, maybe, because it gives us an excuse to avoid the hard spiritual work of looking for God in our everyday lives. This, to me, is the complimentary message of the third blessing, the more well-known “shehecheyanu”. Contrary to the last two words of the second blessing, which mark a fixed period of time in history, the last two words of the shehecheyanu, “lazman hazeh – to this time” acknowledge God’s ongoing presence and life-giving force in our lives and celebrate the “miracle” of another day, another year, another Chanukah candle-lighting with our families.
As we light the Chanukah candles, let us look back with gratitude and pride at our history. Let us also appreciate the “miracle” of lighting candles with our family, our friends, and our children again this year. And, as we see the Chanukah candles reflected in the eyes and the hearts of a new generation of Jews, let us look forward with gratitude and hope toward our future.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach (Happy Chanukah),
Rabbi Marc Baker