Sunday, December 1, 2013

Modern-day Miracles

2nd century BCE: A tiny vial of oil miraculously burns for 8 days.
21st century CE: A gigantic bottle of vegetable oil miraculously disappears into 75 latkes.

 I witnessed the modern-day miracle first-hand on Friday as our apartment slowly filled with the smell of deep-fried potatoes. The fact that our latkes were fried in an ancient cast iron pan dating back to the days of my Savta Fanny (as the countless scratches indicate…  the result of repeatedly slicing into Schnitzel while it was still on the stove) only added to the ceremoniousness of the occasion. 24 hours later, the pan cooled and stowed and the apartment aired out, friends and family joined us to light the fourth candle, marking what Erol calls “Hanukah halftime.” It was the first time that I had hosted three generations of Seeligs in my home, and I must admit, it felt pretty warm and fuzzy.

I’ve heard the story of Hanukah told many times and from every possible angle. There’s the version that emphasizes national liberation, the one about fighting for religious freedom, and of course the version that celebrates the victory of a few brave Maccabees against overwhelming odds. But the part of the story that every version seems to include is the bit about the oil: A tiny vial of oil – barely enough to last for one day – miraculously sustained the light of the menorah for eight. Every year we light the Hanukiah and remember this miracle of light. We admire the candles as they accumulate from one to eight. But here’s the catch: we admire them, yet we’re not allowed to use them:

 ואין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם אלא לראותם בלבד
"We are not permitted to use them, but only to look at them."

Charles Reznikoff wrote a very short poem – just four lines long – entitled “Hanukah,” which offers a possible explanation for this puzzling prohibition:

In a world where each man must be of use
and each thing useful, the rebellious Jews
light not one light but eight—
not to see by but to look at.

The “rebelliousness” Reznikoff describes is not that of the fearless Maccabees; it refers to anti-utilitarian resistance…. In addition to commemorating the “rededication of the temple” (khanukat beit hamikdash), Hanukah represents the rededication of the spirit in an age obsessed with practicality, efficiency and usefulness. As I lit the candles last night surrounded by family and friends, I was reminded of just what they radiate: beauty, warmth and wonder. It may not sound as impressive as the miracle of the little-jug-of-oil-that-could, but to me it felt awfully big.

And guess what? I still got to witness a miracle: all 75 latkes miraculously disappeared…and no, it didn’t take eight days!