Rabbi Arieh Berlin
Every year, on a particular date, a friend of mine makes a special remembrance meal. On that day, ten years ago, while driving on a highway in Europe, his car spun totally out of control. He and his family all walked away without a scratch. The police who arrived at the scene couldn't understand how anyone could have survived the accident.
One's immediate reaction to this story is "WOW What a miracle!" We have all heard such stories, which inspire us and remind us that G-d is running the world. However, when I wake up in the morning, go to my car, put the key in the ignition and start the car (hopefully first time!), I don't think of it as a nes, a miracle, because I understand why it happens. When I turn the key, a spark is sent from the spark plug into the engine which causes a mixture of petrol and air to be lit under compression which in turn causes each of the other components of the car to go. We usually only call something a miracle when it is out of the normal realm of our experience. As for everyday occurrences, we don't so much as raise an eyebrow. They are apparently natural phenomena not worthy of even casual attention. Of course they are really from Hashem. However Hashem established certain rules at the time of creation and only on rare occasions due to special need, will He override those laws.
This is often the misconception we tend to make when defining the difference between the natural and the miraculous. Rabbi Dessler 1 gives the following example, which illustrates this misunderstanding.
Imagine there is a corpse lying in a grave, the body decomposing and turning into dust. Slowly from the depths of the grave something begins to grow and a human body forms and protrudes above the ground. The earth is eventually thrust aside and a complete human being emerges from the grave. One would be astounded to witness such an event and would certainly consider it miraculous.
However, when a seed that has been sown in the earth rots away and a new shoot emerges from the rotting material, the selfsame miracle goes unnoticed.
Chanuka provides us with a valuable opportunity to sharpen our sensitivity to the miraculous in the everyday.
On Chanuka we light candles for eight days to remind us of the miracle that happened during the time of the Chashmanaim. A small jug of oil that had only enough oil to burn for one day burnt for eight days.
The Beis Yosef 2 asks a question. If Chanuka commemorates this miracle, why don't we celebrate it for just seven days? The oil was sufficient to burn for one day - it is the seven extra days that are miraculous.
Many different answers are given. Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv gives a simple explanation and says that the fact oil burns at all is a miracle. Even though we are accustomed to it, we should acknowledge that it is actually miraculous - as much of a miracle as water burning.
The Gemara 3 brings down the story of Rav Chanina Ben Dosa who found his daughter depressed one Erev Shabbos. When he asked why this was so, she answered that in her error she had put vinegar into the Shabbos lamps instead of oil. She only realised her mistake after she had kindled the wicks and now as Shabbos had come in, it was too late to rectify the situation. He asked why she was so sad about this given that "the One who told oil to burn can also tell vinegar to burn." Indeed, the vinegar lamps burnt throughout Shabbos and were able to be used for the Havdala light. Rav Chanina had reached the level where he recognised intellectually and had truly internalised the fact that there is really no difference between nature and miracle. As far as he was concerned there was no reason to keep up the pretence of "nature" and so for him oil and vinegar were equally flammable.
It would be a mistake for us on our level to think that we too can defy "natural" laws. Nevertheless, we can infer from Rav Chanina's example that it is entirely appropriate to commemorate Chanuka as a miracle which lasted eight days - seven days to celebrate the supernatural miracle of the oil and an extra day to reflect on the miracle that oil burns at all.
One might suggest that we should add an extra lamp to our Shabbos lights every week or to our Yom Tov candles, so that the lesson of miracles in ordinary phenomena would accompany us through the entire year. And yet, we only add this extra lamp on Chanuka. What then is so special about Chanuka that we choose to emphasize this message now?
The threat to the Jewish people during the Greek Empire was unique. We can get a sense of this by contrasting the wording of the Al Hanisim prayer of Chanuka with the wording of the Al Hanisim prayer of Purim. (Al Hanisim is inserted in the Shemonei Esrei and Bircas HaMazon for these two festivals.)
On Chanuka we say "when the wicked Greek Kingdom (Yavan) rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your will." On Purim we say "Haman, the wicked, rose up against them and sought to destroy, to slay and to exterminate all the Jews..." We see that Haman threatened to physically exterminate the Jews whereas Yavan strived to uproot Torah from our midst, ie., a spiritual annihilation. The nation of Yavan is descended from Noach's son, Yefes 4. As we know Noach had three sons. Shem represented the spiritual, Yefes - beauty and Cham the body. When Noach gave Yefes a bracha 5, he concluded the blessing with the words "and he will dwell in the tents of Shem." According to the commentaries 6 this conclusion indicates that the entire bracha is essentially for Shem. Yefes is included however, only so that Shem should ultimately enjoy his bracha. Yavan could have used their power and added to the neshamos (spiritual aspect) of Bnei Yisrael. Instead, they focussed on the external. Everything was physical. This is even hinted at in the shapes of the letters that make up the word Yavan. yud, vav and final nun are all one-dimensional with no internal component.
A Jew who perceives the depth of Torah is not affected by Yavan. However, during the time of the Chashmanaim, the Jews were weak in their service of Hashem. They were more impressed by Greek culture than their religion. The Greeks understood this and took measures to assimilate them into their lifestyle. Their aim was not specifically to make them forget Torah but rather to ensure that Torah would make no impression on them. This was the power of the Greek exile. It was a spiritual assault. They targeted the pillars of Judaism, including Shabbos, representing the spiritual aspect of the world, Rosh Chodesh, which indicates the sanctity of time, and Bris Mila, which demonstrates the spiritual aspect of the body. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the Al Hanisim prayer of Purim is briefer because the danger of Purim was straightforward - the extermination of the nation - it requires little elaboration. The peril of Chanuka was more subtle. It involved assimilation and impurity, hence a more elaborate explanation is necessary.
The tactics of the Greeks were destined to uproot faith in Divine Providence and in turn implant the belief that the events of nature occur only in accordance with mechanical laws. But they failed. We light our eighth lamp to celebrate our faith in the Divine hand that continuously infuses nature with miracles. We applaud the Chashmanaim who rejected the Greek approach and prevented total assimilation. Through their dedication, they merited a supernatural military victory. The spiritual aspect of the Jewish people was able to survive despite deliberate attempts to uproot it in the context of the pervasive and appealing Greek culture.
The world around us threatens our spiritual survival every bit as much as the Greek Empire once did. Chanuka is a time when we can truly refuel our spirituality and strengthen our resolve against those things that pose a negative influence. As we watch the candles burning, let us focus on what we are commemorating and enhance our appreciation that everything around us is indeed a miracle - whether it's starting the car, escaping from an accident or even just the simple burning of oil.
1. Michtav M'Eliyahu, Vol 1, p.177.
Back to Chanuka Homepage
Shema Yisrael Torah Network