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When it comes to jobs that present serious occupational hazards, publishing might seem like a low-ranking industry on the danger scale. No loose wires, no scaffolding, no operating heavy machinery, unless you count the few times I was called upon to switch the massive bottle that rested atop the office water cooler. However, when I worked as an editor of children’s history books, I found there was one professional hazard that occasionally made my work unbearable: utterly depressing subject matter.

We weren’t intentionally trying to upset the poor junior high school students who made up our demographic. It’s just that there’s no real way to whitewash history. Wars are fought, and then they are taught. The most gruesome details are left out, but the main thrust of historical conflicts—the patterns of violence that are continually repeated, the senseless killing of innocents, mankind’s capacity for evil—all come across, no matter how delicately you document the events.

I remember one particularly harsh week: on Monday I was handed an anthology on World War II, Tuesday I was given a collection of essays on September 11, and on Wednesday the subject was Vietnam. I don’t remember Thursday, but chances are good I spent the day slouched over in my chair, chin resting on a stack of papers, staring at my blank computer screen and wondering if depression might qualify me for worker’s comp. The icing on this layer cake of misery was that I spent my breaks surfing news sites, most of which reported on the latest violence in Israel, Iraq and Sudan.

I knew I had to find some answer to all of these questions circulating in my head, or at least had to find a new job. But it all seemed so hopeless. The old question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” seemed almost quaint in comparison to some of the new ones I had darting around my brain: Why do good people so often stand by and watch when bad things happen to good people? Why do we keep saying “Never Again” to genocide, when one humanitarian disaster after another keeps proving us wrong? What kind of morality can exist in war if both sides are brought up to believe they’re right, and a great many of the soldiers are probably fighting against their will anyway?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I think I’ve finally found some meaning in the midst of the apparent meaninglessness. Of course, like all profound moments, my epiphany came when I least expected it, during a perfectly ordinary conversation.

I was discussing the story of Chanukah with my husband, who often likes to take the opinion less traveled when it comes to religion. We were arguing about what the true miracle of Chanukah was. The traditional line is that we aren’t really celebrating the military victory of the Maccabees, because their success in battle was short-lived. Rather, we are reveling in the discovery of the flask of oil, along with its astounding eight-day burning power, because that miracle has timeless spiritual significance.

But my husband disagreed. Finding one pure flask of oil in the midst of an impure Temple just seemed like kind of a small thing to base an entire holiday around. We argued back and forth, when finally he said:

“You know what? I think the miracle isn’t that they found the flask of oil. It’s that they even searched for it to begin with.”

And there it was: the flash of understanding that had eluded me all this time. By all logical standards, when the Jews returned to the Holy Temple after battle to find that it had been desecrated by the Greeks, they should have simply given up. When one is surrounded by impurity, the easy thing to do is accept the “reality” and move on. But, rather than resign themselves to waiting eight days to make pure oil for the Temple’s menorah, the Jews searched through every storeroom and crevice till they found that one flask with an unbroken seal, a tiny vestige of holiness in the midst of impurity.

That is the real miracle of Chanukah: that the Jews still scoured the Temple for something sacred, despite the overwhelming odds against finding anything untouched by the Greeks’ defilement. The wonder of it all is not so much that the Jews found it, but that they had faith that there was anything, any small amount of goodness, left to be found.

And that is the miracle of our generation, too. We live in a seemingly incomprehensible world. History and current events are teeming with countless examples of mankind’s cruelty. But instead of growing numb to the suffering, we persist in asking “Why?!” We demand answers. We search for some kind of meaning in what could easily be written off as a random series of events with no logical conclusion or design. Above all, we believe that there’s something out there, some answer that will grant us peace of mind during these harsh times.

And we will keep searching for that solace, until we find our little flask of oil with which to illuminate the darkness.

Tova Bernbaum is a freelance writer living in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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J Hante San Diego November 28, 2015

Meaning of Chanukah Thank you, I enjoyed your take on the meaning of Chanukah. I would not have initially thought of that as the miracle, but I agree with you that it is just the perfect answer. I know this will stick with me. Reply

Tom McCaffrey Co. Louth. Ireland December 12, 2012

Thank you very much for this wonderful homily. We Irish are still searching for our light to reconciliation. Reply

Anonymous December 9, 2012

I like it:) Reply

Anonymous australia December 7, 2012

lovely What a great look at the holiday Reply

Esther Crown Heights December 6, 2012

great article! Love the message. Thank you! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 5, 2012

The Search There is this very old adage: Search and You Shall Find. I think the message of this piece is very true and we do recognize truth when we see it. As we recognize in people, a certain warmth, a certain acceptance, a certain lack of judgment, and the warmth that comes from being welcomed into a stranger's home. If we did not question injustice, and if we did not lend a helping hand, and wonder, the why of suffering, we would not be truly human, because it is suffering that should bring us to emotion, and there is motion within the word, and energy too, and that is the energy fueled by what we experience to make things better, and to hope it all will become better, for us all. In the word SOIL is the word OIL. And the soil is what we grow things in, and to nourish children, we need to water them, in ways that bring them forward, toward feeling they have their place in the sun, their mission, and their reason for being. We do this by bringing them into and towards the light. To learn LOVE Reply

Sarah Z Israel December 1, 2010

absolutely wonderful!! I LOVE this piece. So meaningful and hopeful and relevant. Thank you so much for sharing. Reply

Shemen December 18, 2004

Reading this article I smiled, remembering the words of my many upset Middle School teachers: "Human being have short terms memories."

Unfortunantly we do force ourselves to ask why good poeple suffer. But then again some poeple don't ask the question and keep doing the same mistake. Therefore the Jewish poeple, the same Jewish poeple that has existed for three thousand years, have been designated to remember what we have suffered, and even celebrate holidays to remember these tragic events. Our hope, the oil that we search in our corrupted world is the hope for Moshiach. And as we find this oil we light it in every branch of Judaism hoping that G-d will keep it lit until further supply with be provided. Reply

Pamela December 7, 2004

Your revelation is poignant. It is the epitome of positive thinking and just "thinking". It is so sad to think that the ancient Jews were much smarter than we are today....

Just imagine if the American Jews and Israel had stood up and said going to Iraq and killing these people is not right. There would have been no Iraqi war AND ISRAEL AND JEWS ALL OVER WOULD HAVE EARNED A NEW AND NEEDED RESPECT for standing up for what is right. We had a chance to find our oil... Reply

Eli Federman Milwaukee, WI December 5, 2004

What explains our immortality? ...What I gleaned from this article is that outliving the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and so forth, is a statistical impossibility, but doing this while preserving the Torah (i.e., not necessarily finding, but the mere searching for the oil) truly eludes the human mind, but nonetheless helps us explain the underlying reason behind our immortality. Its seems like the age old question of the secret to the Jew's immortality has come closer to being cracked. Thank you chabad.org, Tova Berbaum and her husband!!! Reply

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