I’ve always wondered why, when we tell the story of Hanukkah, we emphasize the narrative about the small cruise of oil. You all know the story – the Maccabees were able to defeat the Assyrians in around 165 BCE. They captured Jerusalem, and then retook control of the Temple mount and rededicated the Temple. As part of this process of rededication they wanted to relight the Ner Tamid, the ancient Temple’s version of our eternal light. But they had a problem – it required a special oil, a very particular formula that was certified only by the High Priest. And when they went through the Temple stores, they found only a small container of it, just enough to enable the Ner Tamid to burn for a single day. But of course, as the story goes, the small cruse of oil, that should have lasted only a single day, burned for 8 days – it was, as we say, a miracle – and we commemorate that miracle by lighting our menorot for 8 days.
And what I’ve always wondered is why that is the miracle we focus so much of our Hanukkah time and energy on. After all, there is a much larger miracle, I would argue a much more significant miracle, of Hanukkah. Which is? That a small and almost powerless people, the Jews, were able to defeat the greatest power in the world at that time, the Assyrians. That a ragtag band of rebels was able to muster the strength, determination, courage, and skill to defeat the world’s deadliest and strongest army. That a rebellion that should have had no chance of success not only succeeded, but arguably changed the entire course of human history.
Now the story of the oil burning for 8 days is nice, and I suppose, if it is actually true, it is a sort of minor miracle. But it didn’t really make a difference – not in any real way – in the lives of the Maccabees, or in what happened in the year 165 BCE. The burning oil had no impact on the military struggle of the time and who won and who lost. And it just doesn’t seem to me that when you compare that story and its small miracle with the known events of that time, with one of the great true miracles of human history, the military victory of the Maccabees – when you look at one next to the other – it doesn’t seem to me they are even in the same ball park. So why spend so much time on one tiny, small, minor miracle? Why is that the story most associated with Hanukkah? Why, when someone asks us what Hanukkah is all about, is that the story we tell them?
To help us possibly answer that question, or at least to think about it in a different way, I’d like to spend a few moments with you thinking about one of the great comedy stars of the 70s, Steve Martin. I am sure you all remember Steve Martin – the bunny ears or the fake arrow through the head. The banjo playing. One of the so called ‘wild and crazy guys’ from the hey day of Saturday Night Live. If you grew up in the 70s, like I did, Steve Martin was the King of Comedy, one of the biggest stars in the country at the time. His solo stand up shows would sell out in minutes. Phrases from his routines became part of the vernacular. His image was almost iconic – the white hair, the goofy smile.
And if you followed Steve Martin, you’ll remember he had a routine that he did in his stand up act, called ‘Lets get small.’ It was a little bit – just maybe two or three minutes long. It was subversive, like all great comedy, playing off the idea of getting high. The idea was you’d expect a comedian in the 70s to talk about getting high, about using drugs, but Martin switched the phrase, and talked about – getting small. And the whole routine ran off of that – if kids did it they got ‘really small.’ One time when he was ‘really, really small’ he crawled into a vacuum cleaner. And he would riff on it for a few minutes, and then move on to the next bit.
The other great thing about that routine – another feature of great comedy – is that it made you switch perspectives, both literally and figuratively. You expected him to talk about one thing, but instead he talked about something else. You know what it is like to be big, but he asked you to imagine yourself inside a vacuum cleaner – he asked you to, in his own words, ‘get small.’
And when you get small, you think about things differently. You see the world from literally a different perspective. Maybe you’re a bit humbler. Maybe you’re a bit more grateful. Maybe a bit more gracious. Its always been interesting to me, the words of Jacob from a couple of weeks ago, Parshat Vayishlach, when he is speaking with God before meeting his brother Esau – what does he say? The translation in our Humash is “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have shown me.” But the Hebrew is – קטונתי מכל החסדים – literally, I am too small for what you have done for me. Jacob’s perspective has changed – he once thought he was great, and now he sees himself as small.
And I would argue that there is something about the small moments – about ‘smallness’ – that enables you to experience God in a way that largeness and the large moments don’t. I’ve learned that in the rabbinate over the years. At a large shul like this I’ve been privileged to teach classes with a hundred students, or preach sermons in front of a thousand people. But what I have discovered – and it has surprised me – is that the most sacred moments often are the small ones. A one on one conversation where you say something that might help someone. A funeral with just a few people, where you bring a Jew to his or her final resting place with dignity. A class with just a handful of people where you can spend time and talk things out. In those small moments, I’ve found, God’s presence is clearer and stronger than in many of the big moments.
And isn’t that the lighting of the menorah? If you think of the rituals of our year, the complex music and liturgy of the HHDs, the intricate waving of the lulav and etrog on Sukkot, even the multifaceted rituals of the Passover seder, the lighting of the menorah is one of the simplest and easiest rituals we perform. Put the candles in, say two short blessings, and go eat! It is a small moment – usually just family, at home, a few minutes and back to the routine.
But it also is a sacred moment. To stand with children and grandchildren. To watch as the glow of the candles slowly but surely warms heart and home, bringing light and hope into our lives, pushing the darkness away. And I would venture to guess that many of us, in that small moment of candle lighting, surrounded by the generations of our family, feel a sense of God’s presence.
So maybe that is why, over the years, the story of the oil on Haunkkah has become so beloved. In the grand scheme of things it was a small moment, of no great import. But in some strange and mysterious way it was also a miracle, a moment where God’s presence came into the world, and where God’s eternal connection with the Jewish people was rediscovered. May it be so again and again, in this new year of 2017 and beyond.