A simple but profound question is raised by the commentators in regards to the celebration of Chanukah. We know that a great miracle occurred and the oil, which had the capacity to fuel the menorah for just one day, lasted for eight days. In commemoration of that miracle we kindle lights for the eight nights of Chanukah.
If you think about it, however, the miracle was only seven days. There was enough oil to cover the first day. It was therefore only the latter seven days during which the miracle occurred. Would it not be more sensible to celebrate only seven days of Chanukah, since the first day of light was not miraculous?
Many answers are advanced to explain why a full eight days are celebrated. One possibility is that the first day’s light attests to the military victory which was miraculous. Another idea is about fuel efficiency. The oil should have been entirely consumed on the first day. It was miraculous that oil remained after burning all that day. Tens of similar reasons are proposed, but we’ll focus on just one of them.
Joseph’s brothers were forced to come down to Egypt because of the famine that ravished the Middle East. Egypt had the providential foresight to store vast reserves of food before the famine and it became a provider of sustenance for the entire region. It is impossible to miss the Divine orchestration of events. In hindsight the cruel sale of Joseph into slavery was the providential seed planted to bring about the emigration of Jacob and his family to Egypt. Joseph’s ascendancy to power and the subsequent famine were the chess moves which set the stage for the climax of this part of the saga. Joseph’s brothers bowed to him, unknowingly fulfilling the very dream they tried to destroy. In the end Joseph will reveal his identity and offer his family refuge in Egypt, protecting them from the effects of the famine.
Rashi spilled the beans even earlier. When Jacob first sent Joseph to see to the welfare of his brothers the verse tells us that he sent him from the valley of Hebron. Some commentaries take this simply to mean that Jacob at that time dwelled in that region, beneath the hill of Hebron. Rashi, however, disputes this, noting that the entire area of Hebron is in the heights. There are no valleys in the area. He therefore cites the Midrash explaining that Jacob sent Joseph on this mission in fulfillment of that deep (valley and depth are expressed by the same root word in Hebrew) council of his ancestor Abraham who was buried in Hebron.
Nothing happens coincidentally. Every detail of this story plays a role in the ultimate objective of bringing Jacob and his family to their destiny of oppression in Egypt. Bashert, as they say in Yiddish. The whole story is visible to us as readers. We are privy to the big picture and we know the ending. The players involved in the drama, however, are oblivious to the purpose of all these happenings until the end of the story. This is the way the world works, operated by God with oversight of every little detail. Most events in our lives are not part of such a cosmic drama, but every event is nevertheless part of a smaller web with purpose in every detail. The saga of Joseph reveals generally how God works.
On Chanukah we celebrate a miracle. We celebrate that the oil extended its life for longer than it naturally would. That is noteworthy and a commemoration is appropriate. But we mustn’t fail to acknowledge that the fact that oil burns altogether is a gift of God. Every “natural” law is an act of God. The fact that God consistently upholds the system of natural laws does not diminish the miracle of their function.
The Talmud (Ta’anit 25a) tells a story about a great sage of the Mishna, Rabi Chanina ben Dosa. Completely devoted to service of God, he and his family were destitute. One Friday evening his daughter mistakenly filled the Shabbat lamps will vinegar rather than oil. When she realized her error she was upset and told her father. Rabi Chanina was unimpressed. “He who has given oil the power to burn will also give vinegar the power to burn.” Indeed the vinegar burned that night, no different than oil would have.
To Rabi Chanina ben Dosa the world was very simple – God made things happen. The fact that oil burned was no less wondrous to him despite its consistency. Science can explain the qualities of fuels and why they normally feed fire. But science cannot explain why God ordained it to be so. Vinegar could just as well fuel a fire if God wishes it to. The first night of Chanukah is a celebration of the fact that oil burns. It commemorates the miracle of nature, attributing all of natural laws to God. That miracle is perhaps even greater than the miracle of the latter seven days. If God can make oil burn for one day He can easily stretch its life a few more days.