May 1945. Liberation day finally arrived. Chaim was more dead than alive, but he had survived. Although he had suffered terribly and lost almost everything, he had outlived Hitler. So many times throughout the war, he had given up hope; there was simply no way he could go on. The odds of his survival were practically zero, and yet, in each situation he somehow survived. It was as if a divine hand was guiding him in the miserable darkness.
After being handed a piece of bread by an American soldier, the chaplain asked Chaim what he needed. Chaim immediately replied that, after not having had the opportunity in years, he wanted to put on a pair of t’filin. There happened to be an old, worn-out pair that had been smuggled in. But when it was given to Chaim, he refused to put them on. He wanted to find a m’hudar pair of t’filin.
They tried to reason with him that there was no way they would find such a set. Perhaps they could order one and receive it the following week. But for the moment, he could fulfill the mitzvah with the set that was available. But Chaim wouldn’t hear of it. With tears in his eyes, he explained that the Nazis’ greatest joy was to break the spirits of the helpless inmates, so that they would fall into despair. Chaim was insistent that he fulfill the mitzvah in the optimal manner.
Because of his insistence, the American chaplain drove Chaim a few miles to the remains of a bombed-out shul. The chaplain again tried to explain that there was nothing salvageable. But Chaim was already crawling and sifting through the rubble.
Soon, it was late afternoon and not much time before the sun would set. The chaplain again tried to convince Chaim that they had done their best and he should give up his quest for the impossible. But Chaim was unyielding. He went back to the rubble and randomly began digging. Suddenly, he found a metal box with a lock on it. He excitedly called the chaplain and together they cracked the box open. To their utter surprise and delight, inside was a stunning pair of t’filin. What was more amazing was the name on the bag. The t’filin had belonged to the last rav of the community – a holy tzadik known for his devotion to mitzvos.
It’s an incredible story, but I must confess that I made it up. To be sure, I only make up true stories, and indeed the story is true; just the names and events are different. This story is largely the story of Chanukah. Then, too, their survival was miraculous and against the odds. They too had not fulfilled the mitzvah in years. When the opportunity presented itself, they, too, could have performed the mitzvah easily (impure oil was permissible under the circumstances for a variety of reasons). However, they insisted on performing the mitzvah in an optimal manner, despite the fact that it was virtually impossible to do so. They, too, searched for something that couldn’t be found; and they, too, miraculously discovered what they hoped for.
While miracles have been performed throughout the ages, the purpose of miracles generally is to save lives. This was true at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the destruction of the armies of Sisra and Sancheiriv, the miracle of Purim, and even the miraculous victories over the Arabs during each of the Arab-Israeli wars.
The miracle of the oil, however, was completely unnecessary. That miracle was a divine kiss, as it were. The Maccabees pined to perform the mitzvah and didn’t stop trying to serve Hashem in the optimal fashion, and Hashem reciprocated.
If you think about it, that type of miracle is constantly happening around us. Our community is blessed with numerous chesed organizations, each one performing incredible and vital services to help those in need.
Which organization didn’t begin with a small act? The founders of these organizations will be the first to say that they never thought they would grow to become what they are today. they began as just ideas and a dreams. They each lit one small candle. But then the miracle set in and it continued to burn, brighter and brighter. They kept at it with every fiber of their being, devoting blood, tears, and toil in their pursuit for more pure oil, and G-d began providing.
Which yeshivah or shul didn’t have humble beginnings? Most, in fact, had little chance of survival and growth.
On an individual level this happens, as well. Many people at the recent Siyum HaShas recounted that there was no way they could do Daf Yomi. But they began anyway, and seven and a half years later are marveling in disbelief at their own impossible accomplishment. They lit one flame and, as long as they kept yearning, Hashem kept fueling their fire.
There are Chanukah miracles happening all around us, every day – globally and personally.
As we light our small flames this Chanukah, we should appreciate the fact that it is symbolic of what we do every day and throughout our lives – one candle at a time.