The Talmud relates the famous story of the pitcher of oil that miraculously burned for eight days and the mitzvah instituted by the Sages to light Hanukkah candles for eight nights. When we perform this mitzvah we use the standard blessing formula – asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu (“who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us”) – as if this mitzvah were a Torah obligation transmitted through Moses to the children of Israel. The Talmud asks where God commanded us to light Hanukkah candles (Bavli Shabbat 23a). Rav Avia says the command is implicit in Deuteronomy 17:11: “. . . you must not deviate from the instruction that they [the sages of each generation] announce to you . . .”. Rav Nehemiah says the command is implicit in Deuteronomy 32:7: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father and he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you.” As this verse speaks not of legal instruction, but of history, it seems that Rav Nehemiah thinks the sages are not only the authorized interpreters of the (written and oral) tradition, but also of the meaning of historical events. If the Sages decided that the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks and the miracle of the pitcher of oil carry an eternal meaning for the Jewish people, they are authorized by the Torah to institute a new mitzvah to clarify and commemorate that meaning. According to Rav Nehemiah, it is by virtue of this capacity granted the Sages by the Torah that we bless the lighting of the Hanukkah candles with the standard formula: “who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us”.
When the Talmud relates the story of the pitcher of oil it concludes with the statement (Bavli Shabbat 21b): “. . . on another year they [the Sages] established these days and made them festive days of praise and thanksgiving.” Many commentators have remarked that it does not say “the next year”. We do not know when this “other year” was, how much time passed after the events related before the Sages established these eight days of “praise and thanksgiving”. It often takes a long time before the meaning of historical events becomes clear, and the meaning of any particular historical event may change over time. I once read an interview by a French journalist with Mao tse-Tung. The Frenchman asked the Chinese revolutionary-become-prime-minister what he thought of the French Revolution. Mao answered that it was too soon to say. If we feed our sensibilities only with journalism that tries to fix the meaning of historical events day-by-day we will have a shallow, and skewed, perspective. Let us turn also to classic texts of our tradition, consider them deeply, absorb from them the patience and faith necessary to understand how we might go about ascertaining the meaning of events within our own historical purview. “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you.”