It’s Chanukah week and I must say that I absolutely love this holiday. I love lighting the Menorah with my family and I love making latkes (I use a very simple recipe and they’re drenched in oil and delicious!). On the serious side, the story and symbols of Chanukah inspire thoughts about the desperate need for enlightenment in our world. And the legend of the small cruse of oil that burned for eight days gets me thinking about miracles.
A miracle is an unexpected and welcome event that can’t be explained by natural or scientific laws and is therefore ascribed to the Divine. Our tradition tells us that there are miracles that occur regularly and even predictably, like the birth of a baby or a sunrise, just as there are miracles surprise us and seem to overturn the rules of nature, like the unexpected healing of a person who is gravely ill. While the first type of miracle may seem routine, our tradition asks us to express gratitude regularly for such fantastic moments and develop an appreciation for them. With equal conviction, our tradition also teaches that we should never come to rely on a Divine miracle to save us or help us escape trouble or a crisis. Doing so is dangerous and foolish.
That lesson can be found in this week’s parasha, Mikeytz, which continues the story of Joseph and his dysfunctional relationship with his brothers. At this point in the story, Joseph is living in Egypt as the second-in-command to Pharaoh, and his brothers have come down to procure food. Toying with their emotions and fears, Joseph does not reveal his identity and decides to load them up with food and money for their trip back to Canaan. The text says: “With the first light of morning the men were sent off with their pack animals.” (Genesis 44:3). The first part of the verse sparks the imagination of the Rabbinic Sages. Why, they wonder, do the brothers leave with the first light of morning? If God is protecting them and they are pious individuals, forebearers of the People of Israel, why must they wait until the morning to depart? Obviously, even a pious person should not rely on Divine protection. The Talmud (Pesachim 2a) makes the point explicitly: “Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: One should always enter his lodgings when it is still light and leave on his journey when it is light.” Another rabbinic source adds that such is the case even if a person is a ‘shaliach mitzvah’ (someone who has embarked on doing a mitzvah): “Know that even for someone who is traveling on a matter connected with performing a mitzvah, about whom it is normally taught that they are safe from harm, it is still not advisable for them to travel at night.” The message is clear. People should take steps to protect themselves and not presume that God will shield them from harm. Don’t rely on a miracle to keep yourself safe.
I remember a moment during the first Gulf War that I later understood as a welcome demonstration of the principle that even a pious Jew should not rely on miracles or Divine protection. The late President George Bush, whose life and legacy were celebrated this week, had organized a coalition of nations to evict Iraq from Kuwait. During the war, Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel to draw Israel into the war and expand hostilities (the strategy didn’t work, as the U.S. persuaded Israel to stand down in order to keep the mission on track). It was a terrifying time in Israel as Scuds rained down on the country, with many hitting civilian targets. There were fears that the missiles might be carrying chemical weapons, so Israelis were issued gas masks to protect themselves. One Shabbat morning an air raid siren sounded, and people on the streets scrambled for bomb shelters. A photographer happened to catch a Chasidic Jew, decked out in his streimel and kapote (furry hat and fancy Shabbat coat) on his way to shul, wearing a gas mask and running toward a bomb shelter. That, it seemed to me, was the epitome of the Talmudic rabbis’ advice. Even a pious Jew engaged in doing a mitzvah shouldn’t count on a miracle or Divine protection.
The Chanukkah story teaches the same point. The legend of the cruse of oil is charming, but the real history of Chanukkah reminds us that the Hasmonean fighters didn’t wait for God to step in and relieve their suffering and oppression at the hand of the Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks. They took matters into their own hands. That wasn’t true of the Chasidim, the pious rural Jews who believed that they had to accept whatever appeared to be God’s will, even if that meant death as martyrs. The tension between these two communities nearly sparked a civil war among the Jews. Centuries later, we remember the heroism of the Maccabees, not the passivity of those who waited for a miracle to save them from destruction.
Miracles, both daily miracles and unpredictable miracles, are one of the great mysteries of life. When they happen, we should express appreciation and wonder. But the wisdom of our tradition tells us that we should never count on them to help us out of a jam and protect us from trouble. For that, we ought to rely on ourselves and one another.
I wish you a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Chanukkah!