I’ve been asked many times, “What does Judaism say about miracles?” Traditionally, miracles are understood to be a theophany, when G-d shows up and intervenes in our lives to change destiny. Whether it’s cracking open the sky to flood the world, or bringing forth manna like dew upon the field, miracles, it has been thought, are G-d’s works in a human world. The Exodus is full of miracles, in its demonstrations of G-d’s power through the plagues, or G-d’s redemptive force by splitting the sea.
Judaism has never allowed us to
confuse the success of a miracle to serve
as a criterion for truth. Moses, for example,
turned the rod into a serpent, but the Pharaoh’s sorcerers
did the same. (Exodus 7:11) The Rabbis caution us again
and again against relying on miracles. Rabbi Menachem
Mendel of Kotzk said, “Whoever believes in miracles is a
fool; and whoever does not believe in miracles is an atheist.”
We celebrate the festival of Hanukkah, a holiday
characterized by its reliance on miracles. Hanukkah is
the last story of the ancient ways. It takes place
thousands of years after Abraham and Sarah, hundreds
of years after the first exile to Babylon and the return
under Persian rule. Embedded in the blessings of the
candles, we praise G-d for “miracles that were performed
for our ancestors.” We sing of miracles in our devotion
prayers and spin the iconic dreidel, whose spinning
letters remind us that a “great miracle happened there
(or ‘here’ in Israel).”
The Divine miracle of Hanukkah is the last ancient miracle.
But there are many modern miracles, including the
rebirth of our homeland, Israel.
Hanukkah is the holiday that celebrates the last miracle,
but it’s not what you think. At first glance, the famous
story of the Greek Empire and its oppression of the Jews
and the Hasmonean revolt is not found in our Bible. As
described in the Book of First Maccabees, the miracle of
Hanukkah is found in the victory of the few Jewish rebels
over the largest and most powerful empire at that time.
The great miracle of Hanukkah is seen as the courage of
the Jews to stand up to oppression and find victory in
their own identity. From this view, the delivery of many
into the hands of the few is a miracle. However, that is
not the last miracle of Hanukkah, only the first.
The second miracle of Hanukkah is told in the Talmud.
The Rabbis see the Greek war as an afterthought. Where
the Book of Maccabees pours out pages of ink describing
the mood and battles of the war, the Rabbis encapsulate
it in a single sentence. “When the Greeks entered the
Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils, and when the Hasmonean
monarchy overthrew them, they could only find one cruse
of oil sealed with the mark of the High Priest.” (Talmud
Bavli Shabbat 21b) The focus of the great miracle of
Hanukkah was not the victory of the few over the many,
but the equally famous story of the oil that burned for
eight days, when it should have only burned for one.
This, to the Rabbis, is G-d’s intervention in history, a
true religious miracle.
Except, it’s still not the last miracle.
To find the last miracle is to understand that all Jewish
days begin in the evening at sunset. We are commanded
that each night of Hanukkah we must light a candle in
memory of the great miracle of Maccabees. On the last
night of Hanukkah, we light eight glowing candles, bringing
the light to its absolute brightest. And then we wake up
the next morning. The oil’s purpose now concluded, we
look upon the Hanukkah, sitting in thewindow, extinguished
and dark once again. With no more lights to kindle, no
more parties to be had, no more dreidels to spin, the
miracle seems to be over.
But there is one more miracle left.
The last day, the eighth day of Hanukkah is the only day
we observe the holiday without light. We sing the songs
of Hallel in the morning and read portions of the Torah,
and when the holiday concludes tonight at sunset, we
will make no havdalah, no separation ceremony, marking
the end of Hanukkah and the rest of the week. If we take
the story of old seriously, G-d’s miraculous light extinguished
in the morning of the last day. G-d’s final
miracle in our canonized history was to withdraw the
light just enough to make space for us to start the Menorah
over, and light our own lights.
G-d’s last miracle was not to disrupt life, but to make
room for life. The truly miraculous is not something that
violates our lives but penetrates our souls. The word for
miracle in Hebrew is nes, meaning sign, from which we
derive the word ‘significant’. G-d’s last miracle is to give
you the chance to craft a life that is significant and
miraculous. G-d’s light sputters out and becomes the part
of you that drives you to live with wonder, to believe that
change is possible, and freedom can be had. G-d has
given you privilege and agency to light your own lights,
and create your own blessings.
That is the miracle that we can witness in our own lives.
Rabbi Scolnic