Ari Sacher

“Can we pray for a miracle?” Parashat Vayigash 5784

One of the key pieces of my obligatory Shabbat reading is the weekly lesson from Rabbi Asher Weiss. Rabbi Weiss came on aliya from the US as a youth. A Hasid from the Sanz-Klausenburg sect, he dresses in Hasidic garb. Nevertheless, due to the sheer breadth of his erudition combined with his ability to clearly explain even the most difficult concepts, he is accepted as a Torah giant by essentially all Orthodox Jews, no small feat at all. His weekly lesson is typically divided into two sections: a longer section on some concept in Jewish law (Halacha) relevant to the weekly portion followed by a shorter section on non-legal exegesis (Aggadah). I prefer the section on Halacha, but to each his own.

This past week’s lesson pertained to Chanukah. The topic at hand was the Grace after Meals (Birkat HaMazon). On Chanukah, we add a special prayer to Birkat HaMazon called “Al HaNissim (On Miracles),” essentially a Reader’s Guide version of the story of Chanukah, in which we praise G-d for the miracles of Chanukah: “You delivered the mighty 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, and the degenerates into the hands of those who cling to your Torah. You made for Yourself a great and holy Name in Your world and performed a great salvation and miracle for Your people Israel,” What happens if a person forgets to add Al HaNissim to Birkat HaMazon? Rabbi Weiss quotes the Rema[1], who rules [Or HaChaim 187:4] that this person need not repeat Birkat HaMazon. If he has not yet completed Birkat HaMazon, he can add a “Harachaman (He Who is merciful)” request with the following format: “May He Who is merciful perform for us miracles just as He performed miracles in those days.” Elsewhere [Or HaChaim 682:1], the Rema rules that one should say, “May He Who is merciful perform miracles and wonders (nissim v’nifla’ot) just as he performed for our forefathers in those days at this time in the days of Mattathias the son of Yochanan…”

The Gaon Bechor Shor[2] [Shabbat 21b] has great difficulty with the Rema’s rulings. He quotes the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [60a] that states that if one’s wife is pregnant and one prays more than forty days into her pregnancy that she should give birth to a boy, this is considered a prayer in vain, as the gender of the child has already been determined and it is improper to pray for miracles. The Talmud records an incident regarding our Matriarch, Leah, where the fetus in her womb was originally a boy and transformed into a girl as a result of her prayers. Our Sages teach that this was a miraculous event performed for a remarkable person but that we mortals should not request miraculous events in our prayers. G-d simply doesn’t perform that kind of miracle on command. Why, then, are we asking G-d to perform Chanukah miracles? The Gaon Bechor Shor answers his question by making two distinctions: The first distinction is between natural miracles and supernatural miracles: Although the defeat of the Greeks by the Hasmoneans was certainly miraculous, this miracle can still be considered “natural,” for it is conceivable that a small group of well-trained commandos may defeat a larger army. Thus, one may pray that G-d perform a “natural” miracle. The second distinction is between personal (yachid) miracles vs national (rabbim) miracles: A person praying on his own behalf should not request a miracle; however, one may request for miraculous events to occur to the Jewish nation as a whole. The Gaon Bechor Shor notes that this request should be made in the plural: “May G-d perform for us miracles.”

Rabbi Weiss then cites Rabbi Jacob Orenstein[3], who, writing in “Yeshuot Yaakov,” quotes the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [32a] that states that a person who merits a miracle must “pay” for it using credits from his good deeds (menakin mi’zechuyotav). Hence, a person should not pray for a miracle. But if the miracle performed for this person visibly demonstrates G-d’s Might to a large audience, then the credits he owes are offset by the great sanctification of the Name of G-d that resulted from the miracle. For this reason, teaches Rabbi Orenstein, it is fitting to pray for miracles like in the time of Chanukah.

After laying out all the data, Rabbi Weiss comes to the following ruling: We should not pray for a personal miracle, but we should most definitely pray for miracles that glorify G-d’s name by showing his utter mastery over the universe. After all, concludes Rabbi Weiss, isn’t that what we pray for every day in the Kaddish Prayer: “May Your Great Name be glorified and sanctified (Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah)?”

With Israel in the middle of an existential war, miracles could be quite beneficial. What kind of miracles should we be praying for? Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef[4] was asked this question regarding the Six Day War and he answered, similar to Rabbi Weiss, that when the Arab nations joined forces to fight against Israel, although the chances of an Israeli victory were almost nil as we were vastly outnumbered, it was still permissible to pray for a miraculous salvation, because such a miracle would apply to the entire Jewish Nation collectively. But what about our current war? The IDF and Hamas are not in the same league: Hamas has AK-47’s and RPG’s while we have JDAM GPS-guided bombs and SPIKE missiles. The IDF holds the numerical advantage as well. What is so miraculous about this war? Iron Dome? We’ve gotten so used to that particular miracle that it no longer seems miraculous.

The Talmud in Tractate Zevachim [12b] tells how the Graeco-Egyptian King Ptolemy gathered seventy-two Sages and placed them in seventy-two different rooms and ordered them to translate the Torah into Greek. A miracle occurred and all of them translated the Torah using identical wording, even in places where they doctored their translations to avoid casting aspersions on G-d[5]. My chavruta, R’ Nissan Dennis, once said, only partly in jest, that a bigger miracle would have been had the Sages all been sitting in the same room and still managed to agree on the translation. The Jewish people are a cantankerous bunch. On October 6, we were a nation on the brink. We were one step away from our own Civil War. People were seriously talking about dividing Israel into two countries. Hamas leaders freely admit that this was one of the reasons that they attacked when they did. We were a country in disarray, and they believed that we were at the tipping point. They were wrong. A common enemy, a common mission, and a common purpose have galvanized Israelis. Today, when people hear divisive vitriol on the radio or TV, they turn it off or switch to another channel. Our rediscovering of our national unity is the miracle of this war. We did not want it to occur in the way that it did but, all the same, it is a miracle worth praying for.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch[6], in his commentary on Bereishit [45:11] notes that the Egyptian and the Roman exiles were both caused by jealousy and baseless hatred. Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery because of his coat of many colours. The Second Temple was destroyed because the Jews of Jerusalem were at each other’s throats, burning storehouses of wheat that could have fed Jerusalem for years. The Egyptians and the Romans made no such distinctions. We were all “Jews.” We were all enslaved. All of our male children were thrown into the sea. Rabbi Hirsch teaches that we went into exile to learn that the enemy is not us. Exile enabled the Jewish People to gain “a sense of equality and fraternity.” Without these qualities, we could never have been redeemed. In those days at this time…

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.

[1] Rabbi Moses Isserles, also known by the acronym Rema, lived in Krakow in the fifteenth century. He was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the Ashkenazic halachic arbiters (posekim).

[2] Rabbi Yaakov Shor, known as the “Gaon of Kitov,” lived in Poland at the turn of the twentieth century.

[3] Rabbi Orenstein lived in Lviv, Poland, at the turn of the nineteenth century.

[4] Rabbi Yossef was the greatest possek of Sephardic Jewry in the previous century.

[5] For instance, all of them translated the first verse in the Torah as “G-d created in the beginning”, lest it be suggested that some being named “In the beginning (Bereishit)” created G-d, the heavens and the earth.

[6] Rabbi Hirsch lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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