What Is the Holiday Miracle?

Nes Gadol Hayah Sham.

We all agree that the letters on the sides of the dreidel stand for "A Great Miracle Happened There." (In Israel, of course, the letters stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Po — "A Great Miracle Happened Here.")

But — and this is why there’s a book titled "Two Jews, Three Opinions" — what miracle are we talking about?

"It’s obviously the oil," my son Zack, 17, says. "Read your Rashi."

When the Talmud asks "What is Chanukah?" Rashi, one of the leading rabbinic commentators, interprets this to mean "What is the miracle of Chanukah?" The Talmud then explains that when the Maccabees entered the defiled Temple, they found a small amount of oil, enough to last only one day. But, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.

Thus, we light candles on our menorah for eight days to commemorate this miracle, fulfilling the only commandment of this — yes, hard to believe, minor and nonbiblically ordained — holiday, which is also appropriately called the Festival of Lights. Additionally, if possible, we display the menorah in a window to publicize the triumph of Jewish faith over the forces of darkness.

"No," says Jeremy, 12. "The miracle is that the Maccabees conquered the Greek army. I studied Ancient Greece, and they had a pretty good army."

The First and Second Books of the Maccabees, which are contained in the Apocrypha, a series of books that were excluded from the Bible, support Jeremy. These tell the story of how the small band of Maccabees, led by Judah, fought for the right to practice Judaism — to observe Shabbat, to study Torah and to eat kosher foods. They overcame the stronger, larger army of the Syrian-Greeks, as well as scores of Jews who readily embraced the Hellenistic culture, and reconsecrated the Temple. There is no mention of oil.

The military victory, and not the oil, is also commemorated in "Al Ha’nissim," the special prayer included in the Amidah during Chanukah. "You delivered the mighty into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few… " it says.

"That’s not a miracle. That’s hard work," Zack argues. "A miracle implies something that is beyond human capacity."

"Like fighting holiday crowds and standing in long lines to buy a Microsoft Xbox?" I ask.

In truth, that is the miracle of Chanukah. Not merely that we stand in long lines to buy the Xbox or GameCube or Fisher-Price Rescue Heroes. But that year after year, century after century, we gather with our families to kindle the Chanukah lights, chant the blessings, eat latkes, spin dreidels and, a recent innovation, exchange gifts.

Even in darkest Europe during World War II, many Jewish concentration camp inmates saved bits of oil or shoe polish, fashioned wicks out of threads and enlisted spoons or scooped out potatoes to serve as menorahs. They risked their lives to light Chanukah candles.

For the miracle, in short, is that we Jews have survived, or, as we say in the "Shehecheyanu" blessing on the first night of Chanukah, that God has "kept us alive and sustained us and let us reach this time."

To achieve this, we needed both miracles — the oil, which symbolizes our commitment to Judaism, and the military prowess. Without either, we would have perished.

This, of course, is an old story, going back to Amalek, the quintessential evil-doer and the first to attack the Israelites. Amalek was defeated, but, as the Torah states in Exodus 17:16, "The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

This is also a modern story with a new Amalek, Osama bin Laden, who wants to annihilate our Western and Jewish ways and institute his fundamentalist brand of Islam.

And so Chanukah seems darker this year. Not because it comes in the Northern Hemisphere before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, but because it comes after Sept. 11.

Nearly three months later, it comes after our shock, which has protected us with a shield of surrealism, has worn off, leaving us with the stark and painful reality of thousands of senseless deaths.

And it comes after we’ve seen unemployment and long lines at food pantries across the nation rise, along with increased reports of depression and anxiety.

In addition, the Israeli-Palestinian violence — now 14 months old — shows little sign of abating.

But despite our somber moods, it is imperative that we celebrate Chanukah this year as fully and joyfully as possible, focusing on its enduring story of survival.

My sons, along with ancient and modern Jewish authorities, can continue to debate the nature of miracles. Whether they result from divine intervention, such as the parting of the Red Sea or Daniel’s escape from the lions’ den. Whether these supernatural phenomena are preordained or allegorical. Or whether miracles come from human struggles that eventually triumph in the face of great adversity.

But at the end of day, this Chanukah, we again need both kinds of miracles — our faith, as Americans and as Jews, and our military might — to dispel the darkness that has fallen on our world.