When the Maccabees conquered the Temple in 164 BCE, they found only one cruse of oil with the unbroken seal of the high priest. It was enough to fuel the menorah for a day. As we know, and as the Talmud teaches about Chanukah centuries after the events, the miracle was that the single cruse of oil lasted for eight days. But who was the priest who hid the oil before the war?
That is the key question. As the Seleucid Greeks conquered Jerusalem in 167 BCE and defiled the Temple, an anonymous priest decided to hide the valuable cruse of oil with the seal of the high priest. He did so it in a way that it could be found three years later by the Maccabees. That was an act of faith and hope for the future.
I will never forget the story of our congregant Henry Oertelt, z”l, who sang in the choir at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin before World War II. He buried his manuscripts of Louis Lewandowski’s music for the High Holy Days in the courtyard of the synagogue after Kristallnacht in 1938. When all seemed desperate, he hid what was valuable so that he could hold onto hope. He survived the Shoah, returned to Berlin in 1946 and dug up his musical score. His journey took him to Minnesota. Shortly before his death, Henry wanted Mount Zion to have his music of Lewandowski, the book of his memories of survival. I will never forget what it felt like when he handed it to me. It was like touching the cruse of oil.
None of us remember when the Temple was dedicated but we all know when it was rededicated, the first night of Chanukah, the 25th of Kislev. When we return to something we thought was lost, that is the miracle; that is the light; that is what we remember.
Light and memory come not only after miracles and traumatic stories of survival. We can return to what was lost all the time. We feel as if we are losing hours every day especially, for many, during these days of isolation. If we want to feel the warmth of the fire, the light in times of darkness, we need to “return” to each day as if it were itself the miracle. Each day may seem the same. In that cycle of repetition, we may not see the light.
If you want to see something you have never seen before, take the same walk you took yesterday, Rabbi David Wolpe teaches. You only get to depth the second time. Depth comes from repetition. Life is not a circle but a spiral. We cannot appreciate music upon first hearing it or a painting on its first viewing or a person when first meeting. In Judaism, we have the holidays to help us think about returning to a place we have been and yet we are different. That is where the light is stored.
Rachel and I send you light from our home to yours during our festival of lights and in the midst of this pandemic. May we keep that light safely stored and surely, we will have a rededication in our future that we will remember for generations!
Adam Stock Spilker, Rabbi