On Chanukah
Expanding (musical) horizons

The smallest miracle

In shul this morning, we spent a while reading and discussing a passage by the Sefat Emet, a late nineteenth-century Hasidic scholar (known, as is common, by the title of his best-known work; his given name was Rabbi Yehudah Alter Lieb of Ger). The passage we studied focused on Chanukah and miracles. 

Roughly speaking, here are the six points the Sefat Emet made in the five paragraphs we read and discussed:

- Chanukah was the last miracle God performed for us, so we must find special strength in it.

- Why do we need miracles, anyway? Couldn't God just make our lives perfect so we wouldn't need them? Well: no. Miracles happen in order to demonstrate that we exist only by virtue of divine light which comes from above. In fact, the whole reason for our subjugation is so that God can redeem us with miracles.

- When God performed miracles for our ancestors, they would be sustained by the miracles for a while, but then they'd lose sight of the miraculous and God would have to do another miracle again to keep them awake.

- Since God hasn't done any further big miracles, it therefore stands to reason that we're still being sustained by the light of the Chanukah miracle.

- When we say that the light of one miracle wanes, we're not saying that the miracle itself disappears. Each miracle is actually beyond time and shines forth forever. But miracles lose their renewal-force after a while, which is why God needs to perform more miracles, to keep us in tune with divine light.

- Chanukah, though, contains within it the power to keep renewing us until the messiah comes!

(Serious scholars of the Sefat Emet, please forgive my condensation of his work, which I will also admit to only having read in translation, because my Hebrew just isn't as good as I want it to be. The passage synopsized above comes from Sefat Emet, 1:208f.)

A few things strike me about this passage. First of all, there's this idea that we are subjugated in order that we be in need of miracles, so that God, in turn, can redeem us. This reminds me of the vaguely new-age notion that our lives contain imperfections in order that we might learn from them -- that we somehow bring ourselves to challenges in order to grow and become more enlightened.

[Tangent: The circular reasoning reminds me of the Joseph novella, which we're currently reading in shul. Joseph's brothers had to sell him into slavery (bad) so that he might wind up in Egypt (good), so that he could work for Potiphar (good) and then wind up in jail (bad), so that he could interpret dreams and wind up second-in-command of all Egypt (good), so that he could wind up back in contact with his brothers (a mixed bag, but ultimately good, because he was able to feed them in a time of famine), so that the Israelites could wind up in Egypt and not starve (good), then wind up enslaved (bad), and ultimately be redeemed by Moses working under God's command (good). See? Subjugation happens in order that we might be redeemed and thereby find awareness of, and faith in, God.]

Returning to the Sefat Emet: I like the circular reasoning of "Since God hasn't done any further big miracles, it therefore stands to reason that we're still being sustained by the light of the Chanukah miracle." If we needed another major miracle, God would give us one; since God hasn't given us one, we must not need one.

And then there's that fascinating ending. Why is it the Chanukah miracle which has the power to sustain us until the messiah comes (or, as I'd prefer to phrase it, until the messianic age when the work of healing the world will be complete)? Surely the burning bush, the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds were showier miracles. The Chanukah miracle was just a cruse of oil lasting longer than it should have, like those trick birthday candles that refuse to go out. (Actually, I'd argue that the Chanukah miracle was the leap of faith that it took to light the oil despite not having enough, but even so, that's a pretty small miracle.) Chanukah is a human-sized miracle. Why is that the one which will keep us going, awake and aware and believing, when the big ones won't?

I think the answer lies in the very manageability of the miracle. It's something we can almost re-enact, lighting our little candles against the darkness, increasing in light day by day as we move through the darkest time of year. The Chanukah miracle required humans in order to happen. The parting of the Sea of Reeds was all God; the burning bush was all God; but the leap of faith it took to rekindle the ner tamid was a human leap of faith. It had to be. Only humans can make that leap; God can't do that.

And that, I think, is why the Sefat Emet says Chanukah is the miracle that's going to keep us alight and alive: it's the miracle we created in the first place. There's something human about the Chanukah miracle...and something miraculous about being human.

At sundown (in about thirty minutes, here in New England at this time of year), Chanukah ends. Happy Festival of Lights to my readers, for the last time until next year. I hope your week has brought light of many kinds into your lives.