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Friday, December 21, 2012


Dvar Tefillah For Shabbat Mikketz/Hanukkah 5773.

The American philosopher, George Santayana, is famous for his dire warning that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. However, Santayana who was a confirmed atheist, also had much to say about religion and the true nature of the world. One of his statements that is most interesting to me, if not particularly deep, is this one about miracles: “Miracles are propitious accidents, the natural causes of which are too complicated to be readily understood.” What I find so strange about this statement is Santayana’s extraordinarily narrow definition of a miracle as something that is assumed to be outside of the natural order, thus setting up a philosophical strawman which can be easily knocked down. Since science has proven to us the ironclad laws of nature, it is a scientific fact that the laws of nature cannot be altered. Anything amazing that you and I call a miracle in the religious sense is nothing more than a lucky, blessed accident that is based in nature as well, even if you and I don’t understand it. To argue anything else is to brand oneself an ignoramus who replaces science with silly superstition.

Can the miraculous be defined in only one way? What about all of those phenomena within the natural world that imbue us with a sense of wonder and awe precisely because they are too complicated and mysterious to be understood? What about the things that human beings do as a natural part of being human that nevertheless are so extraordinary they overwhelm us with a sense of their miraculous power? A holiday like Hanukkah pushes the envelope of our definitions of miracles precisely by refusing to make them either/or propositions about reality and faith.

An excellent example of this is the prayer, Al Hanissim, which thanks God for the miracle of saving us from King Antiochus and his Syrian-Greek army many thousands of years ago. My translation, which is taken from the new Siddur Sim Shalom, is somewhat more literal than that of the Siddur’s editors:

We thank You for the miracles, for the deliverance, for the heroism, and for the triumphs that You performed for our ancestors from ancient days at this time of the year.

In the days of Mattathias, son of Yohanan, the heroic Hasmonean Kohen, and in the days of his sons, a cruel power rose against Your people Israel, demanding that they abandon Your Torah and violate Your mitzvot. You, in Your great mercy, stood by Your people in time of trouble. You defended them, vindicated them, and avenged their wrongs. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of pure in heart, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You delivered the arrogant into the hands of those who were faithful to Your Torah. You have revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world, achieving great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day. Then Your children came into Your shrine, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary, and kindled lights in Your sacred courts. They set aside these eight days as a season for giving thanks and chanting praises to You.

Since every text has a context, we should note that Al HaNissim is placed in the Amidah prayer immediately following Modim, the prayer that expresses gratitude to God for the daily miracles of being alive. Two early rabbinic sources are clear that this is where Al HaNissim must be placed; in fact, the Hebrew phrase Al HaNissim, which means literally, “For the miracles,” is a direct echo of the phrase in Modim that praises God for daily miracles, “Al nisekha she-b’khol yom imanu.” This placement and repetition of phrases hints at a connection between our ancestors’ victory over Greek oppression and the common nature of the miraculous: their ability to vanquish the evil king Antiochus was a miracle, but it was not something that happened outside of the normal course of nature and the world.

This idea is played out in two other ways in the prayer. It makes clear that it was God who stood up for the Jewish people and defeated our enemies who sought to destroy us. However, as we know from ancient history, the way that God did this was through the determination of the Maccabees and the people, who steadfastly refused to allow the Greek armies and government to trample our rights to live freely and securely as Jews. The miraculous salvation may have been entirely God’s doing, but none of it would have happened without the thoroughly human resistance to oppression. Finally, what about the story of Hanukkah did you notice is missing from this synoptic account of the Hasmonean revolt? The Talmud’s account of the miraculous way in which the little jug of oil burned for eight days, a miracle quite outside of nature and frankly pretty unbelievable, is nowhere to be found in this prayer. This is the case despite the fact that Al HaNissim was likely composed around the same time that the early Tannaim, the sages of the Mishnaic period, were teaching that story about the jug of oil burning brightly for eight days.

Al HaNissim is a more subtle and sophisticated response to Santayana’s rather dismissive critique of the religious perspective on miracles. It does not ask the believer to park his or her intellectual and spiritual honesty at the door. It is a prayerful expression of what the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev refers to as nissim she-b’tokh ha-teva: God’s great miracles that happen precisely within the context of nature and normal, profane human affairs. They are not miraculous because God mysteriously undoes the regular order of the universe to right wrongs and change tragedy to triumph. They are miraculous because you and I find the mysterious power of divine love and justice within that order and use it in our struggle to bring light to a darkened world.

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