Jewish survival from ancient times through today is a miracle.
From the time of the 10 plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, to the recent attack by Hamas on Israel – in which the terror group fired more than 500 rockets into tiny Israel with only one Israeli fatality – each one is a miracle.
This year, Jews around the world will celebrate Hanukkah from Sunday at sundown until Dec. 10 at sundown. While the holiday is widely known as the Festival of Lights, it is really the Festival of Miracles. During these eight days, we acknowledge God’s supernatural role in our lives and in the world.
Many people assume that the gift-giving holidays of Hanukkah and Christmas are similar. True, Hanukkah starts on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev and Christmas on the 25th of December, but the similarities between these two holidays start and end there.
While Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.
To appreciate Hanukkah, a little history is in order:
When King Antiochus IV of Greece reigned over Jerusalem (215 to 174 BCE) he was brutal and barbarous. To unify his empire, he forced the people to renounce their religions and abandon their cultures.
Specifically, the king sought to eradicate anything having to do with the Jewish faith. Shabbat observance, Torah study and keeping kosher were forbidden under penalty of death. The wicked king even removed the Jewish high priest from his post and defiled the holy Temple with Greek idols.
However, a small and greatly outnumbered group of Jews – followers of the righteous Matityahu and his sons, including Simon the Wise and Judah the Strong – united in a fight against the Greeks and in defense of God’s Torah.
Judah was called a Maccabee. The word is an acronym for the Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem – “Who is like you, O God” – because Judah was committed to fighting to the death out of faith in and love of God.
When King Antiochus learned about the Maccabees, he sent a large military force to wipe them out. Though the king’s army vastly outnumbered the Maccabees in numbers and weapons, with God’s help the small group of Maccabees defeated their powerful adversary and returned to Jerusalem to liberate it.
The Maccabees entered the Temple and cleared it of idols and built a new altar, which was dedicated on the 25th of Kislev in the year 139 BCE.
However, the Maccabees found only enough holy oil to rekindle the golden menorah in the center of the Temple for one day. By a miracle of God that oil burned for eight days.
As such, at the heart of the modern Festival of Lights is the eight-night candle-lighting ceremony, during which Jews recite special blessings. In addition, we add the Hallel prayer and Al HaNissim both in our daily worship and during the recitation of Grace after Meals. This prayer offers thanks to God for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few and the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”
Indeed, the modern return of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel was also a victory of a few over many. And, like the ancient battle against the Greeks, the Israeli army has experienced many great miracles.
Take Israel’s War of Independence. On May 4, 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared independence and the modern state of Israel. Then, just 12 hours after declaring independence, eight Arab armies attacked the infant Jewish nation. But little Israel, with only a small amount of weapons, fought and won.
In 1967, against seemingly insurmountable opposition, Israel likewise won in battle, tripling its territory and reuniting Jerusalem under the Israeli flag – for the first time since the Maccabees controlled the city – in the miraculous Six-Day War.
It’s no exaggeration that the very existence of Israel, a tiny Jewish state surrounded by neighbors intent on our destruction, is a miracle. Jewish people are in Israel because of God, who has always had a plan for His land and His people.
And the miracles continue.
Today the Jews have returned to their ancient and everlasting homeland. The once desolate land is fertile and green again, and Israel, the stalwart of democracy in the Middle East, is a world leader in innovation and entrepreneurship.
It’s no wonder former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion used to say, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”