Chanukah is the festival of miracles, but we dare not misunderstand the nun. The first letter of the dreidel’s quartet challenges the faithful Jew’s heart and mind. Nes, miracle, introduces the collision of truth and fiction. We are folks who require stability. We crave dependability and predictability as the necessary ingredients of virtually every human endeavor, from mixing a martini to sending astronauts into space. If physics, chemistry, biology, gravity, time had capricious minds of their own, our world would be mired in chaos collapsing under the weight of the erratic. We would find ourselves in a tohu vavohu that defined Genesis.
Mother Nature cannot possess a mother’s heart. Her creations must have no intelligence. No emotion. No soul. They must operate in the vacuum of conscience. Anything less and we dwell in a place of mythology. Imagine a world where incantations, amulets, pixie dust, magic wands and yes, passionate prayer, can manipulate or negate cold implacable science.
Our tradition understands the infinite power of God, yet also the covenant with the universe that declares ‘Hashamayim l’Adonai v’ha’aretz natan livnei adam,’ that the heavens belong to the Almighty, but the earth belongs to us. There are boundaries of dominion between the Good Lord and mortals upon which they shook hands years ago. Omnipotence does not call for intrusion. God is not offended by limitations; indeed, He celebrates them.
Our sages wisely taught, ‘Ein somchin al hanes,’ that we are not to depend on miracles. We are taught that attempts to alter physical reality are folly and unholy tampering. We get it, nod, but secretly wish for the occasional divine visit, perhaps to remind us of God’s presence, perhaps, selfishly, to fulfill a need. But a deal is a deal. A covenant is a covenant and God does not go back on His word. Nevertheless, our destiny is not to live in a place bereft of miracles. Rather we must define what miraculous is, so it fits within the sacred parameters of what is respectful of God and of our planet.
Natures’ suspension is not the stuff of miracles, rather it is the infantilization of faith. But an exquisite coincidence, the perfect storm of benevolent events, that can be a miracle. So too, an unanticipated marvelous occurrence that was unforeseen.
The never-ending oil in the menorah was a contrivance by our sages. It was no more a historical event than Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo. The authentic Chanukah miracle was the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus, the righteous few over the evil many.
Spin the dreidel. Understand the nun and appreciate the miraculous. Not because what shouldn’t happen might, but because what can happen does.
A Happy Chanukah to all.
Shalom Lewis is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Etz Chaim, where he has served since 1977. Though retired, he still plays an active role in the synagogue and in the community.