We Are a Miracle

Hanukkah is here!  Jews around the world will celebrate this “festival of lights” by filling our plates and stomachs with potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, playing dreidel, and of course, eating chocolate gelt.  As we internalize oily foods to commemorate the miracle of the small vessel of oil which burned for eight days when naturally it should have only burned for one, let us also try to internalize the deeper message of Hanukkah – that the story of the Jewish people is one of purely miraculous survival!

My kids are obsessed with the song “We Are a Miracle” by Yaakov Shwekey, and there are few things in the world cuter and more heartwarming than little Jewish kids belting out the words to a song about Jewish survival, unaware that they are actually singing about themselves.  The song lyrics highlight some of the most difficult experiences of Jewish history and refrains that our survival is quite clearly a miracle:

A nation in the desert

We started out as slaves

Made it to the motherland,

and then came the Crusades…

 

The Spanish inquisition wanted us to bow,

but our backs ain’t gonna bend never then and never now…

It’s been so many years

crying so many tears

Don’t you know, don’t you really know?

We are pushed to the ground

Through our faith we are found

Standing strong

 

We are a miracle

We were chosen with love

And embraced from above

We are a miracle

 

Extermination was the plan

When the devil was a man

But the few who carried on

Live for millions who are gone

It’s been so many years crying so many tears

Don’t you know, don’t you really know?

We are pushed to the ground

Through our faith we are found

Standing strong

Many Holocaust survivors can tell stories of how their lives were saved through a miracle.  My own grandmother was caught stealing bread from a Nazi on a death-march, and instead of ending her life on the spot, the Nazi who caught her told her that if she had the audacity to steal from bread from a Nazi, she would probably survive the war. That the Nazi did not end her life on the spot is truly a miracle. The truth is, however, every survivor experienced tens or hundreds of miracles, some obvious, others entirely unseen. The same can be said for all of Jewish history.  There is no logical, practical explanation for the reality that the Jewish people have not only survived, we have thrived!  The Jews have experienced exile, dispersion, anti-Semitism, all while remaining small in number and at the same time making major contributions to human civilization.  According to the natural ebbs and flows of human history we should have been gone a long time ago.  The fact that we are still here today is nothing short of a miracle.

Not only is ancient Jewish history replete with stories of the miraculous, modern Jewish history is as well. David Ben-Gurion famously stated, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”  The fact that skeletal people comprising a shell of a nation could emerge from the ovens of Auschwitz, return to their homeland after 2,000 years of exile, drain the swamps and jumpstart a nation-state against all odds, logic, and prediction is inexplicable according to the laws of nature.  These things don’t just happen.  But to the Jewish people they happen all the time!

The Torah refers to the Jewish people as an “eternal nation” – we are going to be around forever.  The road might be bumpy, and at times the prospects for survival may seem bleak, but we have an assurance from the Almighty that regardless of what comes our way we will survive.  This not only a statement about our existential status but also a tremendously powerful psychological concept which can help us, as a nation and as individuals, overcome any hardship that might come our way.

The Passover Haggadah states that in every generation an enemy rises against the Jewish people and the Almighty saves us from their hand.  Sometimes this comes in the form of an overt physical attack – violence, genocide and the like.  Other times this comes in more subtle and insidious ways, like using international law to try and divorce the Jewish people from our homeland (I’m looking at you, UN!).  Our nation was born out of slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago.  Haman attempted to wipe us out in 356 BCE (Purim), and the Greek government outlawed the practice of Judaism in 138 BCE (Hanukkah). In the year 640, Jews were expelled from Arabia.  We suffered torture and massacre during the First Crusade in 1096 and the Second Crusade in 1146.  In the 1200s the Jews were blamed (and therefore murdered) for the Black Plague.  We were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306, Hungary in 1349, and France again in 1394.  In the 1400s Jews were accused of murdering Christian children and baking matzah with their blood.  We were expelled from Austria in 1421, Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1496.  In the 1500s Marranos, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity but secretly kept practicing Judaism, were burned in Mexico, Portugal, Peru, and Spain.  From 1648-1666 Cossacks, Poles, Russians, and Swedes massacre Jews.  In 1744 Jews were expelled from Bohemia and Moravia.  In the 1800s we suffered pogroms in Yemen and Russia, blood libels in Damascus, and were even expelled from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky by Major-General Ulysses S. Grant under “General Order No. 11”.  We are all familiar with the attempts to destroy us in the 1900s — the Holocaust and the Arab nations attempt to annihilate the State of Israel being the two most prominent and vicious expressions of modern anti-semitism.

One might think after such a long and treacherous history we might have given up and lost hope.  One might think that the trauma of constant anti-Semitism, exiles and dispersion would have caused irreparable damage on the psyche of the Jew.  This is not the case.  We are a hopeful people.  We are a resilient people.  We are an eternal people.  Not because of superhuman physical prowess, nor because of luck, but because for nearly 4,000 years we have lived with the knowledge that our existence is guaranteed by the Almighty.  This has given us the psychological fortitude to push through all the trials, tribulations, pogroms and Holocausts that we as a people have experienced.

When my kids sing “We Are a Miracle”, I cannot help but think that the song is literally about them — and you and me as well.  Hitler plotted to destroy the entire Jewish people, therefore, in a sense, we are all survivors.  That we are here is a miracle. That we can get on an airplane and be in Israel in a matter of hours is a miracle. That we are a thriving Jewish nation in our homeland and in the Diaspora and that we have been chosen to play a central role in bringing ethics, values, and morality to the world, is truly a miracle.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Wolnerman is a speaker, thinker, and writer who runs Jewish programs for university students and young professionals while working for Aish Toronto. He has previously served as the Hillel rabbi at the University of Florida and University of Miami. He received is rabbinic ordination from Aish HaTorah and the Chief Justice of the Rabbinical High Court in Jerusalem.
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