We are a people that knows a lot about questions. The seder, which is likely the most widely observed Jewish tradition, is built around questions. And like the Inuit people and their apocryphal 50 words that mean snow, and the Italians and their dozens of words that all mean “pasta,” the Talmud scholar will know about 10 words that all mean “question”. Among those words is a word that means the question that I can ask on the premise of your question that negates it, reliving me of the burden of answering your question, and a word that means the thing I can say in anticipation of the question I THINK you’re going to ask, so I can preempt your question before it even gets out of your mouth. So we Jews know a thing or two about questions.
Probably the most famous of all our questions, and possibly the one on which the most answers have been suggested, is the Question of the Bais Yosef. The Bais Yosef (a commentary to the Tur’s Shulchan Aruch, written by Rav Yosef Karo in the late 15th century) asks a question that will seem instantly familiar. He notes that the famous jug of found oil was supposed to last one day, so in fact only seven days of the Maccabee’s menorah lighting were miraculous. The oil was supposed to last one day, right? So why do we have an eight-day celebration?
There are typically two types of answers to this question. One genre of answer says that one day is to acknowledge some miracle other than the oil’s burning (such as the victory of the war, or that they found the oil, or that idea that G-d created a world where oil gives off light at all.) The other approach is to try and identify some aspect of the burning of the oil that was miraculous even on the first night.
One famous answer within this approach is that of Rav Chaim of Brisk (Soloveitchik) who suggests that what happened was that each night, including the first night, the Maccabees poured only one eighth of the oil out, but miraculously, it lasted the entire night. That miracle happened on the first night too, thus eight nights of miracle, eight day holiday. This answer comes with an added bonus too. If this is what happened then it helps explain what the rabbis saw in the “oil miracle” that inspired them to see the victory of the war as a miracle. Rabbi Yitzchak Mirsky in his Hegyonei Halacha points out that if this is what happened then the QUALITY of the oil was miraculously increased such that a little bit was able to disperse a lot of darkness. Isn’t that the perfect symbol for the victory of the war? It’s not like G-d created MORE soldiers to overcome the “Greeks”. Rather, the Maccabees, small in quantity but great in moral quality overcame a lot of moral darkness, so it all fits together rather neatly.
And that’s what I’ve taught for almost 20 years. But this year, with a Hannukah unlike any in my past, surrounded as I am by a community that keeps finding new ways to give and love, I think I have a different explanation.
Another possible answer to the Question of the Bais Yosef within this approach is the answer of the Ta”Z (a commentary to Code of Jewish Law.) Based on the Zohar the Ta”Z writes that in the world that we live in, after the six days of creation, G-d no longer creates something from nothing. If there is going to be a miracle of more oil, then there has to be something for the miracle to work with. There has to be some small amount. The Jews found oil, but as they poured it out, there was miraculously more oil. Somehow, through G-d’s intervention, the small jug kept pouring eight times. Rav Chaim of Brisk rejects this possibility for a technical reason, and the interested scholar can see the discussion below (1), but I’ve been more fascinated by the symbolism here. It seemed so obvious to me that Rav Chaim’s approach had the advantage of great symbolism. If the Ta”Z is right and the miracle was “G-d made more oil,” then how does that symbolize the victory of the war?
This year I know. The symbol is not that there was more oil; it’s that the jug never emptied. It had a small amount in it, but it was able to keep giving and giving until its job was done. That’s how the miracle in the Temple showed the Rabbis that the war was a miracle, because the same must have been true with the soldiers. They gave and fought, when it was too hot and too cold, and they were too hungry and the march was too far and the night was too long, but they did it and they were never emptied. How can that be? How can people give so much and not become empty themselves? That’s a miracle that’s as real and as powerful as what happened in the Temple.
And that’s what I’ve seen this week. As many know from my note last week (you can see more about that here) my wife’s best friend, Tami, was in a horrible and shocking traffic accident that took the life of her beloved 13 year old son and left her fighting for her life. I’m part of a What’sApp group of people organized around supporting the family. Members of the extended family post requests – who can go to the airport, who can drive someone to the hospital, that sort of thing – and I have to tell you that it’s not the especially righteous that get to help, it’s the especially quick texters. So many people want to help that if you hesitate a moment, BAM, someone else took the mitzvah. You would think that two weeks into this insanity there would be a lessening of support, but somehow that jug still has oil.
There are at least 6 groups organized around saying Tehillim (Psalms) to storm the gates of heaven on behalf of Tamar Adina bas Kayna Shulamis. I heard that in just about every line at 7 Mile Market there were women checking the What’sApp groups to see what chapter was next. This community has rallied around the family in a way they appreciate but really don’t understand. It’s true that Jews are Freakin’ Awesome, but wouldn’t you expect this to run its course? Somehow, this jug isn’t empty. It’s still got oil to give.
The doctors and nurses, the whole family, the family’s Rav, Rabbi Hopfer, they keep finding ways to encourage each other, to find strength in each other, to look towards heaven in this holy time of miracles and to pray. To keep your spirits up, to stay optimistic, it can wear a person out. If it has, I haven’t seen it. To me they look like this over flowing fountain of miraculous strength. We all pray that they’ll see the Hanukah miracle we all want to hear about.
I’ve noticed that when we look at others, it’s easy to see how they just give and give, but I’ve seen so many people who don’t realize how much they have contributed. We see ourselves as just an empty jug. So today I’ll give you all a bracha. I usually only give our brachos (blessings) on Purim, and then only when I’m good and warmed up, if you get my meaning, but I’ll make an exception today. Today, I’ll give you all a Channukah blessing. May your lives be overflowing with blessing, may you be worthy to have the Creator ensure that when you give to others it comes from an overflowing of yourself, may you each be a jug that never empties.
(1) Rav Chaim’s objection to the Ta”Z is that he suggests that any oil created miraculously would be pasul (unfit) for use in the Menorah. Thus it could not have happened that way. Rav Chaim’s proof to this idea is based on a midrash quoted by the Radak in Sefer Melachim. He writes that the wife of Ovadiah was patur from Trumah and Maaser on the oil Elisha made for her. Rav Chaim says the p’tur was that only naturally made oil is subject to mitzvos and thus, just like the oil was patur from Ma’aser, it would also be pasul for use in the menorah. A question that comes up nearly each year when I teach this essay in Hegyonei Halacha is that there is another way to understand that midrash. It could be that the rule is that “when Hashem creates something for you, you can use it for the reason it was created, and not for some other reason.” If that were true, then the wife of Ovadia could use the oil to pay off her debt and not need to give ma’aser. That would save the Ta”Z’s — in fact miraculously created oil can be used for a mitzvah. This is connected to halachik discussion regarding whether a Golem can be counted in a minyan and whether an animal created via Sefer Yetzirah requires shechita. Interesting discussions for a different time.