Shiur: Tevet 2019 – The Thing About Miracles: From Hanukkah to Everyday Life

The Thing About Miracles:
From Hanukkah to Everyday Life

 

What is a Miracle?

 

1. Melakhim Alef 16:1-8

 

Elijah the Tishbite, an inhabitant of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.” 2 The word of the Lord came to him: 3 “Leave this place; turn eastward and go into hiding by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 He proceeded to do as the Lord had bidden: he went, and he stayed by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat every morning and every evening, and he drank from the wadi. 7 After some time the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. 8 And the word of the Lord came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

 

What Does It Matter?

 

2. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 8:1-3

 

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof [of the legitimacy] of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock [providing us with water]. Korach’s band mutinied against him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same applies to the other wonders…

What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following…”

 

3. Rav Shagar, Leha’ir Et Hapetahim, 114

 

Rambam thought that faith that is based on miracles is faith that has flaws. A miracle that is presented as a proof for faith is forced on a believer artificially, from the outside, such that there will always remain a gap between the believer and their faith through which doubt can slip.

Seeing miracles as a proof for faith is a manifestation of a desire to hold onto the absolute. But the absolute cannot be seized, it only reveals itself as an intangible and unmediated presence. The very logic of proofs defeat them, for they introduce a duality into faith that blocks the path to the absolute. When miracles function as proofs, they become a hard fact that externally indicate the existence of God, and in doing so they dissolve the realness of this existence and sustain the persistence of doubt.

 

The King of India

 

4. The Kuzari I:19-22, 25

 

  1. The Rabbi: If thou wert told that the King of India was an excellent man, commanding admiration, and deserving his high reputation, one whose actions were reflected in the justice which rules his country and the virtuous ways of his subjects, would this bind thee to revere him?

 

  1. Al Khazari: How could this bind me, whilst I am not sure if the justice of the Indian people is natural, and not dependent on their king, or due to the king or both?

 

  1. The Rabbi: But if his messenger came to thee bringing presents which thou knowest to be only procurable in India, and in the royal palace, accompanied by a letter in which it is distinctly stated from whom it comes, and to which are added drugs to cure thy diseases, to preserve thy health, poisons for thy enemies, and other means to fight and kill them without battle, would this make thee beholden to him?

 

  1. Al Khazari: Certainly. For this would remove my former doubt that the Indians have a king. I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me…

 

  1. The Rabbi: … In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him: ‘The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,’ viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: ‘The God of heaven and earth,’ nor ‘my Creator and thine sent me.’ In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: ‘I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,’ but He did not say: ‘I am the Creator of the world and your Creator.’ Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Herut, “This is For You, A Sign,” 78–79

 

The Haver of The Kuzari also gives miracles a central role in the context of faith. However, rather than framing miracles as proof for faith, he says that they create a connection to faith. The Haver chooses to present himself to the Khazar king as “believ[ing] in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles… who sent Moses with His law.”  The king is confused by this confession and asks, “Now shouldst thou, O Jew, not have said that thou believest in the Creator of the world, its Governor and Guide, and in Him who created and keeps thee?” In response to the king’s shock, the Haver emphasizes the miracle of the exodus from Egypt as the basis of faith. The Exodus from Egypt demonstrates God’s direct, personal relation to the Jew that transcends nature. This personal relation creates the Jew’s connection to his God and his Torah.  This great, revealed miracle demonstrates real, divine closeness, and this closeness is itself the primary revelation of faith. As far as The Kuzari is concerned, miracles are not some momentary “hocus pocus,” they are events that carry within them the sensation of direct encounter with the wondrous, the mystical. This is the religious significance of miracles, without which they have no meaning.

 

What is Faith?

 

6. Rav Shagar, “My Faith,” Faith Shattered and Restored, 22-24

 

Philosophies and outlooks are, in this context, nothing but rationalizations – apologetics, even – whose sole role is to justify what has already been arrived at, and which must thus be regarded with a certain wariness. They are not the substance of faith but explanations for it; thus, they are ancillary to it and always involve a degree of duality. To paraphrase the opponents of Maimonides and his school, who stated that a God whose existence must be proven is no God at all, I offer the absurd assertion that a believer who requires an intellectual proof for his faith is no believer at all.

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “event” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you.

 

You Did Miracles For Our Forefathers

 

7. Yishai Mevorach, A Theology of Absence, 57

 

“With those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Devarim 29:14).” These words correctly present the deep meaning of the biblical idea of a covenant (berit), which means being a sign-representation of the past encounter, of the moment of responsibility and obligation towards the other who confronts me. Similarly for the father of the nation, Avraham: “I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring who come after you, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring who come after you. […] As for you, you and your offspring who come after you throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. […] every male among you shall be circumcised. […] and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. […] Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact” (Bereshit 17:7-13). If so, maintaining the covenant means being a body that expresses the past, as a past that was, in a present that has nothing of its own. Maintaining the covenant means living without revelation or redemption that happen to me. Instead, I see myself as “offspring who come after,” as a symbol of the event and encounter that was.

 

8. Yishai Mevorach, A Theology of Absence, 63

 

A covenantal life is when two people willingly exist as representations of a moment of revelation, the engagement, that happened in the past. In their past there was a “face to face” moment of revelation-responsibility, and now the couple are a symbol of that time. A life of covenant is not about the Other who reveals himself to me, but the Other who revealed himself to me, and the I, the face, who was the address of that revelation.
Here too, as with prayer and the commandments, secularized Western culture boldly tries to fill a couple with tension and expectations of revelation. This is why couples are always told about workshops, classes, magical getaways with youthful atmospheres, bungalows, taking time away from parenting, analyzing their tension, and so on and so on, ideas without end, all just so that the couple will resume discovering each other and revealing themselves to one another. However, “this is all Christian,” as Rosenzweig would say. Someone who wants to hold onto an Other who is currently revealing himself, without any disruption, is asking to live without a covenant. In a covenant, there is no revelation, only a faithful representation thereof. This forces or coerces a person to carry the covenant onward, toward the children who bear its sign.

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

There is a deep tension in the nature of Hanukah. The holiday is most commonly understood as a celebration of the miracle of the oil, as described in Masekhet Shabbat.

What is ‘Hanukah? The rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev ‘Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God’s wonders) were to be recited. (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Shabbat, 21b)

This gemara depicts the Maccabees entering the temple and, upon preparing to light the Menorah, finding only enough pure oil to light the Menorah for one day. When they lit the Menorah, however, it miraculously stayed lit for eight days, and thus the holiday of Hanukah was established to commemorate this. The liturgical passage of Al HaNisim, however, presents an entirely different picture of the nature of the holiday.

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, 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 wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

Al Hanisim doesn’t even mention the miracle of the oil. Instead, it focuses on the miraculous military campaign where ‘א helped the Hasmoneans, the Maccabees, fight against the Seleucids, delivering “the many into the hands of the few.” It makes a brief mention of the kindling of lights in the Beit HaMikdash, but that is a far cry from the miraculous lighting of the gemara. The key to resolving this tension lies far earlier than either of these texts, in the dedications of the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash that acted as precedents for the rededication in the time of the Maccabees.

The dedication of the Mishkan is described three separate times in the Torah, each with a different emphasis and context. The first time is at the very end of Sefer Shemot, when Moshe finishes putting up the Mishkan and the Cloud of ‘א descends upon it (Shemot 40:17-38). The second is in Sefer Vayikra, at the end of the long list of sacrificial laws that starts off the sefer (Vayikra 9). Finally, in Bamidbar 7, the dedication takes the form of the donations and sacrifices of the Nesi’im of Bnei Yisrael to the Miskhan. Each of these dedications express a different aspect of the Mishkan. That of Sefer Shemot, capping the whole construction of the Mishkan, focuses on the way the Mishkan serves as a mobile Mount Sinai, with an emphasis on Moshe and the way that ‘א would reveal himself above the Keruvim (Shemot 25:22). The dedication of Sefer Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan as the place Bnei Yisrael would come to bring sacrifices to ‘א, and where Aharon and the Kohanim would serve daily. Sefer Bamidbar focuses on the heads of the Tribes of Israel and the presence of ‘א amidst the developing Nation of Israel. Thus these three dedications together depict the Mishkan as the place where ‘א comes to Bnei Yisrael, the place where Bnei Yisrael come to ‘א, and the living presence of the two together.

After the fall of the Mishkan, there was no House of ‘א in Israel, until Shelomoh HaMelekh built the Bet HaMikdash in Sefer Melakhim I. The dedication of the Bet HaMikdash is described in Melakhim I:8. The majority of the chapter is taken up not by the celebrations or even by the dedication itself, but by a long exhortation of the people by Shelomoh (8:12-61). (This exhortation takes the form of blessings to the people and a prayer to ‘א but it seems clear that the people are meant to hear the prayer and learn from it.) The main emphasis in this passage is on the incredible nature of an infinite god dwelling in a man-made structure, or any structure for that matter, and the inherently conditional nature of ‘א’s presence amidst Israel. The passage emphasizes the way that misdeeds and evil are punished when ‘א dwells amongst the people, and the harsh requirements of the Presence of ‘א. The corresponding passage in Sefer Divrei HaYamim II:6 is roughly the same, with perhaps slightly more emphasis on the House of David (6:46).

Much like these earlier passages from Tanakh, the gemara in Masekhet Shabbat and the Al HaNisim prayer present the rededication of the second Bet HaMikdash in very different ways. Al HaNisim presents it in context of the military victory, the divine salvation of the Jews from the political and religious domination of the Seleucids, while Masekhet Shabbat presents the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash in context of the divine grace manifest in the miracle of the oil, of the flaring up of the supernatural in the midst of the natural. Perhaps, unsatisfied with a holiday celebrating the victory of the Jewish over the Greek, Hazal focused on the rededication as a victory of the Holy over the Mundane. Instead of focusing on the reclaiming of the Bet HaMikdash, Hazal chose to emphasize the miracle that would be more meaningful for a people in exile. The holiday didn’t gain and lose facets based on the historical situation of those celebrating it, but certain facets are emphasized, while others are overshadowed. Now that we have returned to the land of Israel, now that the Jews have a sovereign land again, Hanukah presents us with not just with a celebration but with a question. In what context do we view the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash? What aspects are we going to focus on? Are we going to follow Maimonides, and emphasize both the military victory and the miracle of the oil? Are we going to be reminded by Hanukah of our leadership in the land, and all the responsibility that entails? And can we do so without forgetting that which lies above our natural existence, that which exceed our greatest possible expectations? Our relationship with ‘א, concretized in the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash, is multifaceted, and can be seen in multiple lights. Which facets we emphasize, how we view the Hanukah lights, is up to us.

[1] Translation from chabad.org

[2] I have discussed this in greater detail here.

[3] This also explains the different explanations for the establishment of the holiday found in Maccabees I, Maccabees II, Megillat Taanit, and Josephus’ Antiquities.

[4] “In [the era of] the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, [attempting to] nullify their faith and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments. They extended their hands against their property and their daughters; they entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure. The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary; this was on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, with the exception of a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit the arrangement of candles from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.Accordingly, the Sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, which begin from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, should be commemorated to be days of happiness and praise [of God]. Candles should be lit in the evening at the entrance to the houses on each and every one of these eight nights to publicize and reveal the miracle.These days are called Chanukah. It is forbidden to eulogize and fast on them, as on the days of Purim. Lighting the candles on these days is a Rabbinic mitzvah, like the reading of the Megillah.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah U’Hanukah, 3:1-3) (Translation from chabad.org)