Miracles Illuminated by Lauren Shaps
This Sunday night we’ll light the first of our eight Chanukah lights, and we might even make time for a rowdy game of dreidel. Take a moment to read your dreidel and think about the beautiful message it brings to our attention. The letters stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (A Great Miracle Happened There). Or in Israel, Nes Gadol Hayah Po (A Great Miracle Happened Here).
We all know about dreidels and latkes and donuts and menorahs, but how much do we know about the deep and relevant Chanukah themes? What miracle are we talking about and why do we care? Two important sources, the Talmud and the paragraph we add to our daily prayers, tell us about two miracles: For starters, a small band of brave Jews won a war against the powerful army of the Syrian Greeks. This was followed by finding a small flask of oil needed to light the menorah in the holy Temple, which lasted not just one, but eight miraculous days. So which one was the miracle? Or why did we need both? And what’s a miracle anyhow?
The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (1707 -1746, Italy), in his magnum opus, “Derech HaShem” (“The Way of G-d”), teaches that when G-d created the world, He set it up to run according to natural law, what we call science or “Mother Nature.” Rabbi Yaakov Marcus (Jerusalem) explains that G-d hides behind the veil of nature to give us free will. Were G-d to reveal Himself, we would be totally overwhelmed. We wouldn’t have the option to do the wrong thing ever. We would be like angels or robots, forced to do good and, therefore, we could never get credit for doing the right thing.
So, according to the natural order of things, a ragtag band of Kohanim (Jewish priests) could not beat the superpower of its day. Likewise, a small flask of oil, enough for one day, could not, according to Mother Nature, burn for a full eight.
The Talmud cautions us with an interesting principle, Ain somchin al haNes (Don’t depend on miracles). Don’t play chicken on the highway, don’t walk through a field of landmines, don’t take stupid risks and expect G-d to turn nature upside down to save you.
But, life is all about risks. If we never took a risk, we would never leave our homes, never drive a car, never apply for a job, start a business, marry or have babies. So much of our lives is about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, and most of the time, we drive there and back safely, our businesses succeed, our children grow up healthy, happy and only slightly neurotic due to our “perfect” parenting.
When the Maccabees won the war, was that a miracle or just good luck? No one would know for sure. So G-d rewarded the Maccabees for their courage and fortitude, for putting their lives at great risk to save Judaism, by creating an obvious miracle, because everyone could see that a small flask of oil, enough for one day, could not, according to the natural order, last for eight. In that way, G-d took the whole Chanukah package, tied it up with a beautiful nes (miracle, or banner), in essence saying that His gift to us was all of Chanukah. Each and every one of the events was above and beyond what could occur naturally and they were brought to us, with love, by our Creator, the Almighty, who parted the veil to allow us to see how He orchestrates the events of history and the laws of nature.
Chanukah is not meant to be only a commemoration of ancient history. Miracles are not fairy tales from long, long ago and far, far away. If we open our eyes, we can see miracles at every moment. The sun rises and sets, a sperm rendezvous with an egg, and nine months later a beautiful baby is born. Thousands of rockets are launched by the enemy next door and almost no one is hurt. The miracle of the birth and survival of the State of Israel, of Jews reconnecting with their homeland and their Jewish roots; the incredible boom of Torah study, even amongst Jews who can barely tell an aleph from a bet – every one is a miracle.
At Chanukah, our Jewish ancestors, men and women, took the initiative. In fact, they took great risks because the alternative might have been Jews, but no Judaism. G-d blessed their courageous actions with miracles. Chanukah is about much more than latkes and dreidels. Chanukah is about courage, about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, about being the next link in the chain that will bring Judaism to our children and grandchildren. Chanukah is about knowing that sometimes only war will lead to peace. May G-d bless our puny, often half-hearted human initiative with the miracles we still need to bring light and peace to our world.
Lauren Shaps, MSW is a JWRP city leader and full time adult Jewish eduator. She works closely with her husband, Rabbi Zischa Shaps and they are blessed with 5 wonderful children. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org