The year was 1777. The month was December. The American Continental Army under General George Washington was awaiting the battle at Valley Forge. The future president was deeply concerned about the welfare of his troops. The bitter cold and the poor provisions with which his revolutionary army soldiers had been provided did not bode well for the outcome of the critical battle that awaited them. Wrapped in his officer’s cape and wearing his three-cornered hat, Washington went outside to see firsthand how his men were faring. As he went from tent to tent, he saw men dressed in rags, huddling around small fires, trying to keep warm with a hot meal of any sort. He continued to walk about when suddenly he encountered a single soldier bent over a small metal apparatus in which he had lit a few small tallow candles.
Intrigued, General Washington walked over to the young private for a better look. Startled, the man jumped to his feet and saluted. The general said, “Explain to me why you are lighting those little candles here, in the middle of nowhere.”
The soldier was, of course, Jewish. He began to relate the age-old tale of foreign Greeks who, upon conquering the Land of Israel, had entered the Jews’ holy Temple and placed their idols in the most sacred place of worship. He told how the valiant Maccabees, no longer able to bear the evil decrees forbidding the performance of Jewish ritual and the study of Torah, rose up against the evil Greeks even though they were greatly outnumbered and poorly armed. “Just like here, only more so,” the private interspersed. “Nevertheless, through the grace of Heaven, they succeeded in removing the Greeks from their land.”
The soldier then explained how the Maccabees purified the sanctuary and finding only one undefiled container of oil, used it to light the Menorah. Miraculously that one small container of oil, which should have been enough for one day, instead lasted for eight full days – until new oil could be made. In commemoration, he was lighting those little lights.
General Washington stood enthralled. He looked at the little flames, and at the face of the Jew. Then, he laid a firm hand on the man’s shoulder. “You are a Jew,” he exclaimed, “from a nation of prophets! I treat what you just said as a prophetic message from the Almighty Himself! With your little lights and your inspiring story, you have struck new courage in my troubled heart.” The General shook the young soldier’s hand, saluted, then turned to continue on his rounds.
What happened after that is history: It took a number of weeks but General Washington’s forces outlasted the British and thus scored a decisive victory at Valley Forge, the beginning of an overall pattern of success in battle. Eventually it led to independence from Great Britain for the fledgling colonies who were soon to become the United States of America.
One evening, some two years after that fateful December night, the young Jewish soldier, who had since returned from the war to his home on Broome Street in New York City, was sitting with his family around the dinner table. It was Chanukah and the family had just lit their Menorah in the window for all to see.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The soldier opened the door and was shocked: General, President, George Washington, was standing in the doorway, in all his glory. “Behold the wonderful candles. The candles of hope of the Jewish people,” he proclaimed joyously as he gazed admiringly at the Chanukah candles in the window.
The General walked into the brightly lit home and surveyed his surroundings approvingly. Then, he placed his hand upon the soldier’s shoulder and said, “The candlelight and your beautiful words lit a flame in my heart that night. Surely, you and your comrades will receive due recognition for all of your valor at Valley Forge. But this night, accept from me, this medallion.” He proceeded to hang a medallion of gold upon the soldier’s chest and shook his hand. Tears came to the younger man’s eyes; he couldn’t say a word. The General saw his emotion, shook his hand once again and left the house.
The soldier stirred as if coming to from a memorable dream. He then looked down at the medallion and saw a beautiful engraving of a Chanukah Menorah with the first candle lit. Below was written, “As an expression of gratitude for the candle of your Menorah.” This medallion is part of the permanent collection in the Jewish Museum in New York.