I’ve been asked many times, “What does Judaism say about miracles?” Traditionally, miracles are understood to be the quintessence of an extreme theophany, when God shows up and intervenes in our lives to change destiny. Whether it’s cracking open the sky to deluge the world, or bringing forth manna like dew upon the field, miracles, it has been thought, are God’s works in a human world. The Exodus is full of miracles, be it demonstrations of God’s power through the plagues, or God’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.”
Tonight we conclude 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 God 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.*
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. It comes from the Book of Maccabees, part of the Apocrypha. This book, as well as others, was appreciated by the early Rabbis, but because events described take place too late in the general story of the Bible (after the return to the land under Ezra), they never made the cut. As described in the Book of 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 zealotry 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 God’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 Hanukiah, sitting in the window, extinguished and dark once again. With no more lights to kindle, no more parties to be had, no more dredels to spin, the miracle seems to be over.
But there is one more miracle left.
The last day, the eight 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, God’s miraculous light extinguished in the morning of the last day. God’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.
God’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. God’s last miracle is to give you the chance to craft a life that is significant and miraculous. God’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. God has given you privilege and agency to light your own lights, and create your own blessings.
That is the last miracle.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah
*I do want to acknowledge that for many, including myself, the rebirth of our homeland, Israel, is a modern miracle.
It seems the need for miracles are everlasting. Food and shelter for many, and working together Democrats and Republicans, are these things possible? I enjoyed the discussion yesterday sponsored by the Forward. You always speak well, and I was impressed by Ron Galperin and the difficulties that lie ahead.
This year we did have one miracle, 2 and probably more vaccines developed in one year – never done before.
Best wishes to you and your family.