מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
What is Chanukkah, that our Sages taught: On the 25th of Kislev - the days of Chanukkah, they are eight, not to eulogize on them and not to fast on them? When the Greeks entered the Temple, they polluted all the oils in the Temple, and when the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they checked and they found but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the High Priest, but there was in it only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days. The following year [the Sages] fixed those [days], making them holidays for praise and thanksgiving.
Al Hanisim (from the Siddur)
"We thank You also for the miraculous deeds and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and the saving acts wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our ancestors in ancient days at this season. In the days of the Hasmonean Mattathias, son of Johanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, then You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah. Both unto Yourself did you make a great and holy name in Thy world, and unto Your people did You achieve a great deliverance and redemption. Whereupon your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name."
על הניסים (מסידור התפילה)
על הניסים ועל הפורקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה. בימי מתיתיהו בן יוחנן, כהן גדול, חשמונאי, כשעמדה מלכות יוון הרשעה על עמך ישראל להשכיחם תורתך ולהעבירם מחוקי רצונך. ואתה, ברחמך הרבים, עמדת להם בעת צרתם, רבת את ריבם, דנת את דינם, נקמת את נקמתם. מסרת גיבורים ביד חלשים ורבים ביד מעטים וטמעים ביד טהורים ורשעים ביד צדיקים וזדים ביד עוסקי תורתך ולך עשית שם גדול וקדוש בעולמך ולעמך ישראל עשית תשועה גדולה ופורקן כהיום הזה ואחר כן באו בניך לדביר ביתך ופניו את היכלך וטיהרו את מקדשיך והדליקו נרות בחצרות קודשך וקבעו שמונת ימי חנוכה אלו להודות ולהלל לשמך הגדול
Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine — which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.
Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000)
The essence of the Greek war to destroy the Jews was by means of darkening the eyes of Israel. The Greeks knew that they would not be able to successfully defeat the Jews by military means--rather only by darkening their eyes...
There are people who, despite the fact that they involve themselves with Torah and the service of God, walk in darkness. These people do not perceive light and are considered [spiritually] dead. The purpose of human beings is that they see with a clear lens the Divine light which shines within all Creation. As we find in the origins of Creation, ‘and the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep...and God said, Let there be light; and there was light. God saw that the light was good...’(Gen. 1:2-4) This light was not physical light, but rather Divine light...
Within a glimpse of this light, a person sees the strength of the Creator within all of Creation. [With this vision] a person does not perceive a separated world in which all things are disunited. Rather, [a person sees that] everything is One and that a singular elevated power sustains everything. [When a person sees with this vision] there is no longer any place for ‘unformed and void and darkness.’ And this is the essence of the Greek war--that they darkened the eyes of Israel.
אֵל בָּרוּךְ נְעִימות יִתֵּנוּ. לְמֶּלֶךְ אֵל חַי וְקַיָּם זְמִירות יאמֵרוּ וְתִשְׁבָּחות יַשְׁמִיעוּ. כִּי הוּא לְבַדּו פּועֵל גְּבוּרות. עושה חֲדָשׁות. בַּעַל מִלְחָמות. זורֵעַ צְדָקות. מַצְמִיחַ יְשׁוּעות. בּורֵא רְפוּאות. נורָא תְהִלּות. אֲדון הַנִּפְלָאות. הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבו בְּכָל יום תָּמִיד מַעֲשה בְרֵאשִׁית. כָּאָמוּר לְעשה אורִים גְּדלִים. כִּי לְעולָם חַסְדּו. אור חָדָשׁ עַל צִיּון תָּאִיר וְנִזְכֶּה כֻלָּנוּ מְהֵרָה לְאורו. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', יוצֵר הַמְּאורות.
They offer adulation to YWVH, whom they bless. They chant and voice their praise to the sovereign, the living and enduring One. For YHWV alone achieves victory, creates anew, masters war, sows righteousness, cultivates deliverance, effects healing, is praised with reverence, and is the author of wonders. Through God's goodness, the work of Creation is renewed each day...
The Gemara asks: For a miracle that occurs for the multitudes we recite a blessing, but for a miracle that befalls an individual person we do not recite a blessing? Wasn’t there an incident where a certain man was walking along the right side of the Euphrates River when a lion attacked him, a miracle was performed for him, and he was rescued? He came before Rava, who said to him: Every time that you arrive there, to the site of the miracle, recite the blessing, “Blessed…Who performed a miracle for me in this place.” And once when Mar, son of Ravina, was walking in a valley of willows and was thirsty for water, a miracle was performed for him and a spring of water was created for him, and he drank. Furthermore, once when Mar, son of Ravina, was walking in the marketplace [risteka] of Meḥoza and a wild camel [gamla peritza] attacked him. The wall cracked open, he went inside it, and he was rescued. Ever since, when he came to the reeds he recited: Blessed…Who performed a miracle for me in the reeds and with the camel. And, when he came to the marketplace of Meḥoza he recited: Blessed…Who performed a miracle for me with the camel and in the reeds, indicating that one recites a blessing even for a miracle that occurs to an individual. The Sages say: On a miracle performed on behalf of the multitudes, everyone is obligated to recite a blessing; on a miracle performed on behalf of an individual, only the individual is obligated to recite a blessing.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
OPTION #2: Private miracles, the hidden coincidences, that sometimes change the direction of our lives because of amazing timing, are guided by Divine destiny.
The concept of the "hidden miracle" is developed by Nachmanides (13th century Spain) in his explanation of the ups and downs and ups again of Joseph's life in the Bible. Even though God never speaks to Joseph — not even in dreams — and never violates any laws of nature to cast him down into the pit via his brothers' jealousy or to raise him up by his ability to analyze the future and make a plan to preempt a famine, Joseph is convinced, in retrospect, that it is the hand of Divine destiny that has shaped his roller coaster existence and given it meaning. But one might object on three grounds:
- You cannot "prove" the existence of an invisible hand of God, because it is only a matter of interpretation.
- One might become passive awaiting God's miracles whether public or private.
- Living in a world of existential uncertainty offers more moral grandeur and harsh honesty than the childish world of Divine providence.
Personally, I have great respect for an existentialist Camus-like stand that there are no Divine safety nets and that accidents may determine one's fate in the most indifferent way. Yet in a world of uncertainty I do not want to be dogmatic either in accepting or denying the possibility of personal, private miracles. It is a matter of interpretation and it is not provable one way or the other. When I choose to interpret coincidences as miracles, as a personal sense of destiny, then it gives me a strength to make meaning out of my life. I feel like Queen Esther who decides to reveal her Jewishness to the King in order to appeal to save her people from Haman, because "who knows if just for this opportunity I became queen." We, like Esther, cannot know for sure but we can wager on the possibility that God has offered us or called us to take an initiative in a significant "window of opportunity" that may just transform history "miraculously." We can become active partners with Divine destiny by regarding key junctures in our life, so-called "accidents," as pregnant with meaning. That is how we rewrite and reinterpret our lives as a purposeful narrative.
- Noam Zion, Miracles in "A Different Night"
OPTION #4: The Biblical miracles are always associated with historical redemption because they point not to the violation of natural order which is seen as Divinely beautiful, but to the violation of human order which is so often corrupt and oppressive.
This is an insight I owe to my teacher Rabbi David Hartman. Miracles in the Bible are often not merely proofs of religious dogmas (as in the case of Elijah on Mount Carmel), but also contributions to undermining totalitarian oppressors. For example, at the Red Sea the Jews needed not only a military miracle to be saved from Pharaoh's chariots, but a psychological-political miracle to be liberated from their paralyzing fear of Pharaoh, their self-deified master. When Pharaoh is so amazingly defeated before their very eyes, then they can begin to believe in their own potential as free human beings and to give their allegiance to a God of liberation.
The violation of nature is the form the miracle took in the eyes of the people because for them the absoluteness of the rule of Pharaoh, his invincibility, seemed as solid as the laws of nature. Many of the ten plagues are described as events that had never before occurred since the foundation of Egypt. Thus described, they served to undermine the mental hold on the slaves who believed the ancient kingdom of Egypt could never be shaken. But the message of the miracle is about people's mistaken belief that the power of an empire is absolute and eternal. I believe in this message which liberates me from the totalitarian propaganda of the oppressor, even if I regard the supernatural form of the miracle as a rhetorical device, a kind of educational gimmick, to shake me out of my habitual defeatism about "the way things are and always will be."
1.2 Miracles as violations of the laws of nature
David Hume (Hume 1748/2000; cf. Voltaire 1764/1901: 272) famously defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature,” and this definition has been the focus of lively discussion ever since. Hume evidently means to denote something beyond mere changes in the regular course of nature, raising the bar higher for something to qualify as a miracle but also raising the potential epistemic significance of such an event if it could be authenticated.
Bringing the concept of natural laws into the definition of “miracle” is, however, problematic, and for a variety of reasons many writers have found it untenable. (Brown 1822: 219–33; Beard 1845: 35; Lias 1890: 5–7; Huxley 1894:154–58; Joyce 1914: 17; Hesse 1965; Montgomery 1978; but see Wardlaw 1852: 27–41) First, the concept of a miracle predates any modern concept of a natural law by many centuries. While this does not necessarily preclude Hume's concept, it does raise the question of what concept or concepts earlier thinkers had in mind and of why the Humean concept should be thought preferable. (Tucker 2005) One benefit of defining miracles in terms of violations of natural law is that this definition entails that a miracle is beyond the productive power of nature. But if that is the key idea, then it is hard to see why we should not simply use that as the definition and leave out the problematic talk of laws.
OPTION#3: The laws of nature are themselves a miracle created by God and worthy of wonder.
As the Jewish philosophers Maimonides (12th century) and Heschel (20th century) argue, the fact of order can itself be seen as Divine. As the prayerbook phrases it, "we thank you God for miracles of the everyday" such as our success in processing our wastes without diarrhea or constipation. In experiencing the beauty of order in the snowflake and in the glacier, in the human mind's innovative wisdom and in the lawfulness of the everyday, we discover the miracle of what exists, rather than the miracle of the anomaly and of the bizarre. Though the miracle of Hanukkah celebrates the extraordinary, in which we may be reticent to believe, we can still have faith in the miracle of the ordinary, the amazing patterns of order in a world created by God out of chaos.