Stories have great power. We tell stories about ourselves and about our communities because they give our lives meaning, and they help us navigate between the past and the future. We use stories to help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Not far behind the seemingly innocent plots of many of the stories we tell about our community’s religious history lie profound existential truths addressing our most pressing religious concerns.
What grade–school child or Jewish nationalist doesn’t love to hear or tell tales about physical acts of heroism performed by our Maccabee brothers and sisters? Competing with this story of military might is the pious narrative of the oil lasting for eight days and the rededication of our holy Temple, a deeply religious moment in our people’s history.
The story of the oil lasting for eight days does relate a miracle. The question is how do we interpret the story, and where do we attach meaning. The power of the miracle that God performed was not that God provides us with oil that we would not have had otherwise. Rather, God kept a small quantity of oil miraculously aflame for eight days in order to communicate to the Jewish people that God was present in their community. The miracle of the oil was that God gave the Jewish community, the very people that had suffered so greatly in their war against the Greeks, a clear sign that God had not abandoned this holy nation.
This Hanukkah story explicitly addresses our intense urgency to feel God’s presence in our lives. We all have our personal miracles and for someone else they might not have a big influence, though these memories and miracles are very special to us. Spirit of Chanukah shows us optimism and I wanted to have this opportunity to share my miracle story with you.
There was a small scroll, which was bought in a small synagogue shop in the Ukrainian town Kamenets Podolskiy at the beginning of the last century over 100 years ago. In 1928, my grandfather, who was eighteen years old, decided to seek his fortune in America. His neighbor, an old shoemaker, presented him with a souvenir for good luck, small Sefer Torah, on which – Shana Tova u Metuka – was written.
The young man did not reach America, but stayed in Moscow. The small scroll always stayed with him. When World War II broke out, this Torah went with him to Berlin in a soldier’s knapsack. The soldier was wounded. While in hospital he met his basheret – beautiful Rachel, and they returned to Moscow and had two children Moshe and Shimon.
It was the year 1952. During this time, Jewish families were forcibly moved from Moscow to Siberia. However, God saved this family, and Stalin died. The Torah still remained safe in the family or perhaps it was keeping the family safe. Young Shimon grew up, met my mother and they got married. His father died shortly after their marriage. While I was growing up in Moscow I heard about the Torah, but never saw it. When my family decided to move to Israel, my father wanted to take it with us, but couldn’t find it. We looked through the entire house, but it had disappeared! Almost ten years later, after my discharge from the IDF and before my mother was to be ordained as a Rabbi, we visited Moscow. To our surprise, my grandmother told my mom “I have a present for you”, and gave her that Torah, which mysteriously reappeared.
My family and I are very realistic people, however in that moment I am sure we all felt the same feeling of a miracle. The Torah returned to us just at that moment, when my mom was going to become a Rabbi. We all saw that it was a good sign, which God had sent to us. The Torah, which had disappeared for so long, came back to us, and still keeps our family together in spirit today, even when we separated into different places around the world.
Rabbi Julia Margolis
Chag Chanukah Sameach. —Rabbi Julia Margolis