The Meaning of the Oil Miracle

The story of Chanukah is a story of triumph. The triumph of the few over the many, the weak over the strong, the light of Torah over the darkness of the Hellenist culture and philosophy that had swept unforgivingly over the ancient world, leading to the severe persecution of Torah-abiding Jews.

But the miracle that takes front and center in the festival of Chanukah is not the military victory of the Maccabees, a small and ill-equipped band of brothers who defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world, but a much quieter, less “triumphant” miracle.

After the Maccabees reclaimed the Holy Temple from the Syrian Greeks, they found it desecrated and defiled. And yet, pure-hearted and determined to find a glimmer of hope in the darkness, they searched oil to light the Menorah and rededicate the Temple. Incredibly, they found one tiny, untouched cruse of oil that the Greeks did not manage to defile—enough to light the menorah for one night. A miracle occurred, and the oil lasted for eight days and eight nights, until new oil could be prepared.

What is so celebration-worthy about the miracle of the oil?

Oil represents the suprarational soul that rises above nature, like the way oil rises above all other liquids. The soul, and its innate bond with G‑d, is the only force powerful enough to extricate a Jew from the spiritual morass of Hellenistic Greece.

That’s why we celebrate the miracle of the oil. It’s not just about the oil. It’s about what the oil represents: a pure and powerful faith within us that can never be tainted, no matter the struggle and adversity we face.

Adversity and Disability in a Different Light

While the awesome military victory of Chanukah inspires pride and gratitude, the miracle of the oil teaches us a critical life lesson: how to find light in the midst of what seems like utter chaos and darkness.

There are two ways we can view adversity. We can see it as something we need to wage war against, something we must dodge and defeat, a challenging experience from which we must try to emerge unscathed and unmarked.

Another way to view adversity is not as an obstacle on the path of life, but as an integral part of life, something to emerge from stronger, wiser, with new understanding of ourselves and the world. A propellant of growth and shaper of character. Something to be embraced, not mourned.

To view disability through the first lens is to constantly be looking at what is broken within a person and how to fix it—to solve or avoid the challenges caused by that “brokenness.”

To view disability through the second lens is to acknowledge that much more disabling than a physical disability is the idea that disability makes someone less than whole. That the potency of what they can achieve is somehow diminished, their worth to the community somehow lessened because of their struggle. In the words of athlete, actor, and activist Aimee Mullins, who walks on prosthetic legs, “The only true disability is a crushed spirit.”

To view disability through the second lens is to realize that, in fact, disability—or any other type of adversity—can give someone a wholeness that even many able-bodied individuals lack: a sense of empowerment, a knowledge of one’s true worth and potential, an opportunity to know just what they’re made of.

Finding and Lighting the Oil Within

Adversity comes in many forms. We all have adversity in our lives. The question is not whether we will face it, but how we will.

Perhaps the most crippling form of adversity we face in our generation is not something that threatens us from without (as in the case with Hellenistic Greece), but rather from within. The greatest challenges we face to realizing our dreams are the machinations of our own minds, our distorted perceptions of ourselves (Are we really good enough? Capable enough? Do we have what it takes?).

It’s at these times especially that we must remember the miracle of the oil.

Our highest powers, our mightiest strengths, our brightest talents stem from that pure cruse of oil within us. It is the source of that rare and powerful gift that each of us has to offer society. And that’s true no matter who we are. No matter what our spiritual level. No matter our physical abilities. No matter what others may see or think of us. No matter what limiting views we have of ourselves.

The oil is always there. It’s in our friends, our family members, our coworkers; it’s in those who are like us, and those who are much different from us; it’s in people living with disabilities. It’s in us.

The oil is there. But it’s our job to set it aflame.

The miracle of Chanukah was not only that the oil was found; it was that it burned for eight days and eight nights. Inspiration is, by definition, transient. Inspiration that lasts, that really changes a person, transcends human nature. When the small flicker of realization of our potential becomes a flame burning strong and steady within us, motivating us to use our strengths and talents to brighten the world around us, this is, truly, a personal miracle.

One of the beautiful things about a flame is that it has the unlimited potential to light other flames—on and on, ad infinitum. Once we’ve tapped into the power of our own souls, we can use our fire to help others tap into theirs. We can show them just how powerful they are; how their adversity or disability is not something to be fixed or overcome or fought against, but embraced and utilized and learned from. When they are feeling defeated, we can remind them of the strength of their character, the resilience of their spirit, the rareness and value of their potential.

And once we ignite their spark, there’s no limit to how many flames they may light in turn.