What is the miracle of Hanukkah’s first night?

It may be that 2,000 years later, Jews, a miraculously inextinguishable and inexhaustible people, still joyously light their menorahs and spin their dreidels as the sun sets.

(RNS) — From earliest childhood, Jews are taught that the great miracle of Hanukkah involves the discovery by the victorious Maccabees of a tiny cruse of oil, just enough to illumine the grand candelabrum at the reclaimed Temple in Jerusalem for one solitary night; miraculously, it lasted for eight nights. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple after the routing of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies of Antiochus in 164 BC.

A natural question arises: What was miraculous about the first night? On that night, there was plenty of oil to keep the flame burning. It was expected to remain lit through the night, so was there anything miraculous going on?

Was the miracle of the first night that the Maccabees were able to discover even a single drop of ritually pure oil, given the lengthy Greek occupation and resulting desecration of the sanctuary? The place was a mess, with a statue of Zeus put there for good measure.

Or maybe it’s that Judah and his band had the chutzpah to light the menorah at all, believing that somehow, despite the lack of resources, the light would be sustainable for an additional week.

Or maybe the miracle of the first night is something else entirely. Maybe it’s that, 2,000 years after the great victory, Jews are still around to celebrate it.

From time to time, I’m asked to perform funerals for people who have no connection to a synagogue or a rabbi. I consider this an important part of my work. Recently I agreed to perform a graveside funeral for a 93-year-old man whom I had never met. 

Gil grew up in an observant household in Brooklyn and became Bar Mitzvah there. He married, moved to Connecticut, had five children and belonged to a local reform synagogue for a time. He remained a proud Jew and fierce defender of Israel, but over the years, he and most of his family drifted away from organized Jewish life. They left their synagogue and stopped celebrating Jewish holidays, and in turn the Jewish community lost interest in them. 

Gil lived in my town for more than half a century — yet our paths never crossed. 

When people talk about “flyover states,” they are usually referring to those places that we ignore and bypass on the way from one coast to the other. For me, and most of the established Jewish community, there are lots of “flyover Jews,” people whom we barely notice although they are living in our own cities. Too often we write them off from Jewish life. Gil’s family is fascinating and quite accomplished, but from a Jewish perspective, they were mostly off the community’s radar.  

Except for Tad, one of Gil’s children and my prime contact before the funeral. Tad mentioned that he, unlike most of the family — including Gil himself — had returned to Jewish life. As he put it, his “Jewish rebirth” happened about two decades ago, when his family joined a new local start-up Reform congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts, following the birth of his children, Hannah and Ida.

Both daughters continued nurturing their Jewish roots when they went off to college. Hannah traveled to Israel on Birthright. Ida visited historic Jewish temples while studying abroad in Chile and Spain.

“I am very proud and honored that they will continue Jewish traditions because they want to,” Tad told me.

As we stood at the grave on a cold Friday, most of the children and grandchildren stepped forward to pay tribute to Gil, each sharing lovely reminiscences of a caring and doting dad and grandpa. They spoke, as so many do, about the guy who always was there for them with the needed advice or timely quip.

Then, the last grandchild stepped forward to speak, visibly distraught. It was Tad’s daughter Hannah.

In an almost confessional tone, her eulogy began with the revelation of her own Jewish reawakening at school, which led her to attending services frequently on Friday nights. During those services, she explained, one prayer in particular had become a real source of inspiration for her — the Sh’ma, a proclamation of God’s Oneness. 

On the weekend of Thanksgiving, she visited Gil at his nursing home for what would be her final visit, and she began to feed him his dinner, slowly and meticulously, while looking at him directly, face to face the whole time (his eyesight had mostly failed). Mealtime had become the focal point of her visits, and it was the only time Gil was lucid enough for even basic communication.

After the brief meal, Hannah decided she was going to try to sing to him; she thought the Sh’ma would be the perfect choice, because of its simple rhythm and a melody he just might recognize.

He did more than recognize it.

“It was astounding and surreal when Dad started mouthing and even singing along with Hannah — in his own troubled, quiet voice,” Tad later told me.

Hannah repeated the prayer again, and Gil responded again. Tad and Hannah looked at each other in amazement — through smiles and tears. Tad figures that Gil had not recited that prayer twice in 50 years, but through the fog of Parkinson’s, somehow it came back to him. These sacred words somehow sifted their way through the dusty archives of his memory, from his brain straight to his lips, and they sang it together.

Hannah sang the Sh’ma for the assembled group at her grandfather’s graveside. She shared with them these secret, holy words, but no one joined in. It seemed to me that few had any idea about the compelling role that prayer has assumed throughout Jewish history, that millions of martyrs have died with the Sh’ma on their lips — and that this prayer, which heralds the end of Yom Kippur, is also our traditional deathbed confessional.

As Hannah concluded her tale at that wind-swept cemetery, I told her and her family that she, unknowingly, had coached her grandfather into reciting the classic deathbed confessional as his final words.

Afterward, while driving home, I wondered whether I should be depressed that, for this large family, with 35 of them at the cemetery, only a few retain even the most rudimentary familiarity with Jewish traditions. Or should I be inspired at having seen that no Jewish soul is ever really lost, not even a man on his deathbed, or a granddaughter reaching out to hold his hand?

Judaism has never been about the percentages. We’ll always be the tiniest of minorities. It has been about a tiny candle that defiantly refuses to go out. If the miracle of Hanukkah’s final seven nights revolves around those resilient few ounces of oil, the miracle of night #1 is that, after 2,000 years, Jews, a miraculously inextinguishable and inexhaustible people, still joyously light their menorahs and spin their dreidels as the sun sets.

(Joshua Hammerman, rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, is author of “Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi” and the forthcoming “Embracing Auschwitz.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Editor’s note: The spelling of Hanukkah has been corrected.