SHABBAT CHANUKAH 5775
Do you believe in miracles? “Miracle” is a word that we throw around too loosely. A man in a couple’s therapy session once said to me: “If my wife is ever ready on time, I say: “It’s a miracle!’”
A woman I know says that if her daughter cleans up her room after being prodded and reminded only 5 times and if she does a good job, it’s a miracle!
For me, if the Falcons ever win a game, I say, “It’s a miracle!”
And there are certain cynical people in this room, I won’t say who they are, who, if the rabbi ever gives a brief sermon, or if the service ever ends before noon, say to themselves: “It’s a miracle!”
Chanukah is the holiday that celebrates miracles—the victory of the few over the many, the oil for one day lasting 8. In the 2nd blessing over the Chanukah lights, we thank Gd, sheh-asa nisim la-avoteynu, “who made miracles for our ancestors,” bayaim haheym bazman hazeh, “in those days at this time”—meaning, “at this time of year.” The Sefas Emes, in his commentary, reads bazman hazeh differently. Gd made miracles for our ancestors, bayaim haheym, “in those days,” and He still does bazman hazeh, “in our own time.” Have you ever experienced a miracle in your life?
What is a miracle? This is a deep secret imbedded in the miracle of the oil on Chanukah. Oil in Hebrew is shemen, which also shares the same root as sh’mona, “8”—the 8 days of the miracle and the 8 days of Chanukah. 7 is the number of completion, the number of the ordinary. The world was created in 6 days and completed with the 7th, the Shabbos. The number 8 is when you go beyond the ordinary, beyond what is expected. A bris is on the 8th day to symbolize that to be of the covenant is to have more than an ordinary relationship with Gd. A bris makes it a holy and special relationship. Shemen, “oil,” fattens beyond the ordinary. It also has the same root letters as neshama, our holy soul, because our neshama is what makes us more than just another animal.
The Maccabees reached beyond themselves by lighting the lamp, even though they knew that there was not enough oil to last for more than a day. Gd responded by reaching down and keeping the lamp burning. The miracle occurred only because we and Gd met each other half way. Every mitzvah is like that. Every we do mitzvah to elevate ourselves beyond the ordinary, it brings a little bit of Gd into the world. A miracle is when human beings reach beyond themselves and do acts of goodness and of holiness—acts that cynics say they should not or could not do. Then Gd reaches down and connects with them and helps them.
Do you believe in miracles? Have you ever experienced a miracle? Let me share with you some examples of what I think are miracles and you can decide for yourself. Before the former Soviet Union let Jews leave for Israel, Jews used to hire guides to smuggle them out. One Chanukah a group of Jews were playing “cat and mouse” with a Soviet army patrol as they approached the border. When the guide thought they had lost the patrol, he announced a ½-hour break before continuing the trek. One of the escapees, hearing the magic number of ½-half hour—the minimum time a Chanukah candle must be lit to fulfill the mitzvah—pulled out his menorah, set up the candles, said the blessing and began lighting the candles. The other escapees immediately pounced upon him and the menorah to put out the candles. Just then the Soviet patrol moved in and encircled them.
The head of the army patrol told them: “We were just about to open fire and wipe you out when I saw that man lighting the Chanukah candles. I was overcome with emotion; I remember my zaideh lighting Chanukah candles...I have decided to let you go in peace.” Is this not a miracle? This Jew elevated himself as he braved all the dangers for a chance to do a mitzvah and Gd met him ½ way and saved him.
Here’s a more contemporary example that comes from my colleague Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. Bono, the lead singer for the group U2, recently suffered serious injuries when falling off his bike riding through Central Park, NYC. People wondered how someone as well known and recognizable as Bono could just cycle through Central Park and not be recognized. It turns out that when Bono goes out in public in NY, to maintain his privacy, he wears a disguise. What disguise was Bono wear? He dresses to look like a Chassid! Now think about what that means! Throughout the ages someone dressed like a Chassid had to cower in fear when going out in public. In Europe today it’s as bad as ever—so much so that the Chief Rabbi of France decreed that Jews are not to wear a kipa or display any Jewish symbol when going out in public for fear of anti-Semitic attacks. But in the heart of NYC—for one to feel safe—one dresses like a Chassid! Is that not miraculous?
This past Wednesday Alan Gross—an aide worker who was arrested for doing nothing more than helping the Cuban Jewish community connect on the Internet—was set free. Think about it…a Jew helping other Jews is incarcerated and the American government would not renew diplomatic relations with Cuba unless this Jew was released. It wasn’t always like this. Rabbi Meir of Rottenburg—one of the great scholars of the Middle Ages—was taken hostage by one of the local Dukes, demanding a hefty ransom. No one would help except his fellow Jews, whom he forbid paying the ransom—not wanting to establish such a precedent. Instead, he died in prison. And here in the 21st century the greatest power on earth helps ransom a Jew! Is this not a miracle?
On the plane flying him out of Cuba, Gross was served his favorite foods: corned beef on rye with mustard, and because it was the 1st day of Chanukah—the holiday of miracles—latkes with sour cream. I hope he had the latkes and sour cream before the corned beef on rye…but whatever! Look what our country is prepared to do for a “little Yiddel.” Is this not a miracle?
Here’s another Chanukah miracle—a true story told by Rabbi Allan Tuffs. Let me read it to you:
Young Private Winneger was with the U.S. Army as it marched through Europe at the end of World War II. His unit was assigned to a European village with orders to secure the town, search for any hiding Nazis and to help the villagers in any way they could.
Winneger was on patrol one night when he saw a figure running through a field just outside the village. He shouted, “Halt or I’ll shoot.” The figure ducked behind a tree…To his surprise he found he had captured a young boy. An ornate menorah fell from the boy’s hands. He apparently had just dug it up from where his family had previously buried it. Winneger picked up and the boy tried to grab it back shouting, “Give it to me. It’s mine!” Winneger assured the boy that he was among friends and that he was also Jewish. The boy who had just survived several years of the Holocaust and had been in a concentration camp was mistrustful of all men in uniforms. He had been forced to watch the shooting of his father. He had no idea what had become of his mother…Winneger’s heart went out to the boy and he wound up adopting him.
After they returned to America, an acquaintance of his, a curator at the Jewish Museum in NYC, later saw the menorah and suggested it be shared with the entire Jewish Community. He offered David $50,000 for the menorah—a huge sum in those days. But David refused saying the menorah had been in his family for over 200 years and that no amount of money could ever make him sell it.
When Chanukah came, David and Winneger lit the menorah in the window of their home. David went upstairs to his room to study and Winneger stayed downstairs in the room with the menorah. There was a knock on the door and Winneger went to answer. He found a woman with a strong German accent who said that she was walking down the street when she saw the menorah in the window. She said that she had once had one just like it in her family and had never seen any other like it. Could she come and take a closer look? Winneger invited her in and said that the menorah belonged to his son who could perhaps tell her more about it. Winneger went upstairs and called David down to talk to the woman…and this is how David was reunited with his mother! After all David experienced he could have been bitter and rejected Gd and Judaism. But he lit his Chanukah menorah, thereby honoring his lost family and his tradition. And because he elevated himself in such a manner Gd met him ½ way and he found his mother. What a miracle this was!
My friends, on this Chanukah let’s keep lighting the lights, and let’s keep hoping the hope that in our time Gd will continue to help us to—as we say in the Al Hanisim prayer—“deliver the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous.” Let us be thankful to Gd for, al nisecha sh’bechol yom imanu, “for all your miracles which are daily with us.” May we all have a happy and miraculous Chanukah. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis