“What is Hanukah?” the Talmud asks. It is a story about the miracle of oil and light, is the answer. We may ask, however, so what is a miracle? And do we believe in miracles anyway?
Jewish commentators have wrestled with the question of the miraculous for at least 2,000 years. Some commentators understand the miracle as a manifestation of God’s omnipotence in the form of the suspension of natural law. The parting of the Red Sea, the manna from heaven, Joshua ordering the sun to stand still at Givon are all examples of such classic miracles.
Other Jewish sages have not understood miracles as a break or suspension of natural law. Rather, they understand the miracle as a disruption of our own perception of the world around us as something routine. In other words, the miracle has nothing to do with what is going on outside of us but rather what is happening within us.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner retells an old Jewish legend about the crossing of the Red Sea. Some Israelites never sensed a miracle but only complained about the mud and the discomfort of crossing. Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not the crossing of the sea was a classic divine miracle, an actual suspension of natural law. Regardless of the answer, we know that some people crossed the Red Sea with an inner appreciation of the miraculous, while others crossed with a keen sense of muddiness.
Similarly, according to the Bible, for some Israelites, the manna in the wilderness was another monotonous meal to complain about. For others, each meal was a miracle. This kind of miraculousness is expressed in an interpretation of the verse from the book of Exodus which says regarding the manna, “bake what you would bake, boil what you would boil.” What that verse means, explains Rabbi Elazar who lived over 1,500 years ago, is “whoever wished for baked goods would taste in the manna all the baked goods in the world; whoever cooked dishes would taste in it all the cooked dishes in the world.” For Rabbi Elazar, there was indeed a miracle, but it was an inner miracle, a way of experiencing the world.
In our time, Jewish thinkers have also stressed the inner quality of the miraculous. Martin Buber believed that a miracle is our ability to receive God’s presence. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stressed the importance of our ability to experience awe, wonder, and “radical amazement” as a response to the world.
For Jews, one of the goals of prayer is to help awaken our inner sense of the miraculous. In our most important prayer, called the Amidah and traditionally recited three times a day, we pray, “We acknowledge you, declare your praise, and thank you for our lives entrusted to your hand, our souls placed in your care, for your miracles that greet us every day, and for your wonders and the good things that are with us every hour, morning, noon, and night.” Surely the composers of the prayer book did not believe we encountered Joshua type miracles every hour of the day. Rather they, even like rationalists Spinoza or Einstein, perceived the miraculous in the universe as it is, in its intricacies and beauty that we can perceive, as well as that beyond our perception.
The lights of Hanukah are an expression of thankfulness for the miracles all around us. Hanukah reminds us to notice the small lights around us today and every day. It reminds us that if we complain too much about the muddiness around us, we may not notice the path in front of us to the Promised Land. May this Hanukah be a time of noticing. Indeed the ability to notice is itself a miracle.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman lives in West Tisbury and is rabbi for the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.