I was recently engaged in a serious conversation with my very dear friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Gruzman, head of the Chabad community in my city of Rishon Lezion.
I was complaining to him that my thoughts on the efficacy of prayer were in vain and that I was beginning to lose belief that prayers are answered..
He was astounded to hear it from me. Yet I reminded him that twenty-five years ago on a visit to the the Lubavicher Rebbe in Brooklyn, I had received a special blessing, one that still has not come true. I reminded Reb Yitzchak that I daven every morning with tallit and tefillin and always include the petition for which I pray daily.
“If there is a God”, I said to him, “either He has no eyes nor ears”, to quote an anthropomorphic picture of the Divine Being. “He closes His eyes to my tears and His ears to my requests”
“Not so” answered the esteemed Rabbi. “In order for your prayers to be received, they must fly up on wings to heaven. The problem with your prayers, my beloved friend, is that they remain on the ground”.
So how does one’s prayers ascend to heaven? I am without wings and cannot bring my heartfelt petitions before the throne of the Holy One. But Rabbi Gruzman would not give up on me . “For all the many years we have known one another”, he asked, “don’t you believe in miracles”?
A miracle is defined as “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency”.
I assume there are man-made miracles and divine miracles. How are they to be perceived and distinguished?
Certainly there were no miracles in reply to the wailing and prayers of our holy ones who met their deaths in camps and in ovens with neither human or divine response. Six million martyred innocents had no answered prayers. Was the Holy One on vacation or was it His intent to punish us for our collective sins?
The independence of the State of Israel was a miracle of our generation. But I am convinced that it was miraculous because the few overcame the mighty, the weak overcame the strong. Our fighters had only one option: win or die. The blood of centuries of history that coursed in their veins gave them the will to survive, to win and to create the Jewish homeland after its disappearance two thousand years earlier.
For the Arabs who took up arms against us, it was a fight for possession of territory. For the Israelis it was a fight for life. And by a miracle, we won. Was it Hashem who was fighting with us or was it the young soldier with an old Czech rifle and a few bullets?
The Nazis proclaimed a future victory with the cry “Gott ist mit uns”…God is with us. The Arabs cry out “Allah hu akbar”… God is great. The Jews proclaim “Shema Yisrael”… Listen, O Israel.
All go to war in God’s name urging His protection and victory. To whom does God listen? If He is the Adon Olam, the Master of the Universe, then all people are His and their prayers cannot be ignored.
The question of miracles led us to discuss Chanukah. Amazingly, Chanukah is the only holiday never mentioned in our Torah. All we know of it is from word of mouth, by rabbinic commentaries and from its basic source, The Book of Maccabees, written in Greek
I have the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Five Books of Moses, and the Book of Maccabees in Greek in my library and I often refer to the latter for a deeper insight into what we call the Miracle of Lights.
After the death of Alexander the Great, his vast empire was divided between two of his generals, Ptolemy and Seleucus. One reigned in Egypt and the other in the territories known as Greater Syria, which included the land of Israel
In the year 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Greco-Syrian king of the Seleucid empire came to the throne. In Greek, Epiphanes means “the Manifest one, or the Great one”. The Jews mocked his self-imposed title and changed Epiphanes to Epimanes which in Greek means “the madman”
It was his desire to create an empire in which everyone spoke Greek, dressed like the Greeks, and observed Greek culture and religion. His first attempt against the Jews was to replace Onias, the Kohen Gadol at that time, with his brother Joshua who was more sympathetic to Greek-Syrian culture and who became the new Kohen Gadol under the Greek name Jason.
It was Antiochus’ dream to conquer Egypt but he failed to do so. Instead he turned his wrath against the small community of Jews in Israel, sending ten thousand of his troops to enforce his new laws.
In outlawing Jewish practices, Antiochus made circumcision, study of Torah, and kosher slaughtering crimes against the empire and punishable by death. It was when he placed the statue of Zeus in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that the stir of revolt began in the small village of Mod’in.
Most Jews had no objection to speak Greek, to dress as the Greeks, to appreciate Greek culture, arts, music and theater. Like all of us today who speak our own language, who dress as all other people like us dress and who appreciate the finer aspects of Western culture, these Jews were known as Hellenists (appreciative of Greek culture) and rebelled against their rulers only when their Jewish religious life, practices and heritage were in danger of being destroyed.
A modern scholar has written, “the Maccabean revolt was less as an uprising against foreign oppression but more as a civil war between orthodox and reformist parties in the country”. Sadly we see the civil conflict between the ultra-orthodox and the secularists in Israel today.
Chanukah marks the first war in history ever fought solely for religious freedom.
Divine miracle or miracle of the Jewish will to live as Jews, the final Maccabean victory occurred on December 25, 165 B.C.E. That date has interesting sentiment. The Romans declared December 25 as the annual Winter Solstice and the yet-unborn Christian faith gave it as the date of the birth of their future messiah.
One year later, in 164 B.C.E., Antiochus IV died and with his death so too died Greek idolatry in the Jewish homeland.
Rabbi Gruzman and I never came to a satisfactory conclusion about miracles. We called it “taiku” and await the return of Elijah the prophet to make a determination.
But I shared with him one of the greatest of miracles. “Which one was it?” he asked. It is one which I never tire of telling.
Fifty-six years ago I was scheduled to sail from Haifa to Istanbul but arrived too late and the ship had sailed. The ZIM Lines offered me passage two days later on a ship sailing to Naples, Italy and Marseille, France. I accepted the offer realizing that I could continue my journey from Marseille.
On board the ship at a stop in Naples, I met a young girl from Tel-Aviv en route to visit an uncle in France. I invited her to join me at my dining-room table. We talked and talked and walked the decks for eighteen hours. From Marseille I connected with a boat train to Paris and she took the train as far as Lyon. We agreed to meet in Paris some days later at the American Express building.
Having studied in France I was acquainted with historical sites and the two of us toured Malmaison, the palace of Louis XIV, the museums and the grand gardens in full bloom, the quaint streets of Montmartre, and a walk along the banks of the Seine.
After six days, she left for London and I continued my journeys. But I was deeply saddened after she left and realized that I had fallen in love with her. I had the address she had given me in Tel-Aviv. We exchanged several letters and in one of them I proposed marriage. In her reply, she accepted.
We had known each other only six days. Two strangers. Two families which had never met.
And so, I explained to my friend the Rabbi, “You see. There are some miracles. And the biggest one of all is that it is a miracle that she still puts up with me after fifty-six years together!