In the upcoming days the Jewish people will celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. Known to many as the Festival of Lights, the first word that comes to mind when thinking about this holiday would have to be the word miracle. But with the question being which of the 2 miracles related to the holiday is most significant in the celebration, the question needs to be asked. What constitutes a miracle?
Most people identify a miracle as an occurrence that defies all human and natural powers. Most notably in Biblical history is the parting of the Red Sea. However, since the belief in a miracle more often than not goes hand in hand with the belief that God is somehow involved, there are many that search for explanations to these events, rather than acknowledging the existence of a miracle. The problem with a miracle, particularly in today’s world, is that it is, by definition, not something that can be proven. The individual event taking place often can be verified, but proving it was a miracle and not explainable by logic or science is another story.
To help get into this a little deeper we need to address the 2 miracles associated with Hanukkah. A large segment of the Jewish world that celebrates the holiday identifies primarily with the miracle surrounding the reason that it is an 8 day holiday. When the Jewish people returned to the Holy Temple after their victory against the Greeks and prepared to kindle the lights, they appeared to have only enough oil for one day. When the Menorah burned for 8 days instead of 1, this was seen as a miracle. Subsequently we celebrate Hanukkah for 8 days, lighting 1 candle the first day and progressing to 8 candles on the final day. While this part of the holiday may be seen by many as the miracle of Hanukkah, the true miracle is actually how we made it to the Temple to light the Menorah in the first place. This is the miracle of the Jewish people, with their leader Judah the Maccabee defeating the mighty Greek army. The irony of this is that winning a war is far easier to validate as a natural occurrence, albeit an amazing one, than is one day of oil lasting for eight. But even the prayer said during Hanukkah every day in the Amidah, the prayer of Al Hanisim, translated into English as About the miracles, the focus is put on the battle won by the Jewish army.
The prayer says the following:
In the days of Mattathias son of Yohanan the high priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece stood against your people Israel in order to make them forget your Torah and violate your laws.
You, in your enormous mercy, stood up for them in their time of great need, upheld their cause, judged their case, and avenged their oppressors. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the week, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the degenerates into the hands of those who cling to your Torah.
And you made for yourself a great and holy name in your world, and performed a great salvation and miracle for your people Israel, as you do today.
This speaks entirely to the battle won and only later does it speak to how the Jewish people went to the Temple and lit a candelabra in dedication. Even then it doesn’t speak to it being a miracle as much as an action of gratitude.
And afterward, your children came to the Holy of Holies in your House, and they cleansed your Palace and purified your Temple and they kindled lights in the courtyard of your Sanctuary and they established these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and to praise your great name.
So what does this teach us? Is a miracle a reality or is it a perception? Last February I slipped on the ice, hit the back of my head on concrete, was taken to the hospital by ambulance, was given 5 staples and suffered a concussion. When the Dr. in the ER saw the results of my CT Scan she said she was relieved to see that I was OK because based on her initial examination of my injury she wasn’t sure that I would be. It was clear that if I had hit my head a little harder I may very well have died or at the very least suffered a far worse injury. As it happened, by May 1st all the symptoms of the concussion had gone away. What very easily could have been a life changing event turned into nothing more than a bad memory. To me, this was a miracle. While certainly explainable by medical science, if for no other reason than the fact that God chose to make this no more than something I learn from, to me this was indeed a miracle.
I will never forget a few years back when someone asked Rabbi Moshe Novoseller, the esteemed uncle of my friend Rabbi Amiel Novoseller how he was doing, he replied, “an amazing thing happened to me this morning. I woke up”.
What constitutes a miracle? The truth is that only we can determine that for ourselves. If our level of faith is one that says that we believe every day we are alive is a miracle, then for us it truly is a miracle. If our level of faith is one where we need absolute scientific or medical evidence of why an event took place, and none other than an exceptional happenstance, then maybe that is what we call a miracle. Maybe the whole purpose of Hanukkah is to look at everything that takes place around us and make an honest analysis of why it happens. And maybe then we will see miracles where we never did before.
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