‘We’re Having a Miracle’ Chanukah 5778

I was in Great Neck, NY, last week visiting the North Shore Hebrew Academy. This is not your run-of-the-mill High School. It is a high-tech factory producing the next generation of Torah-observant senators, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists. The school is equipped with all the necessary components with which to perform its mission. It is also home to one of the most beautiful synagogues I have ever seen, inside or outside a school. But what I found most striking about the school were the siddurim.

My generation davened from the Birnbaum Siddur, which was eventually eclipsed by the ArtScroll Siddur, which is in the process of being eclipsed by the Koren Siddur. North Shore Hebrew Academy recently made a large investment in the “Koren Aviv Weekday Siddur”, based on the standard Koren siddur with the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translation, but with a twist. According to Koren, this particular siddur “has been designed as a tool for young people to explore their relationship to their G-d, their people, their history, the values and religion of their people, and ultimately their own identity”. Making davening more relevant and accessible to American youth[1] is a lofty goal. The siddur sets out to accomplish its mission by adding what it calls Reflection, Connection, Learning, and Photographic commentary. The “Connection” sections are the most interesting. They include “stories, narratives, and quotes to help the pray-er connect to the themes of [the text]”. The quotes come from an eclectic list of wise men, some of them Jewish, such as Rav Kook and Albert Einstein, and some of them non-Jewish, such as John Steinbeck.

I found the “Connections” particularly interesting and as Chanukah was just around the corner I turned to the Hallel prayer to see what I might find. Hallel is recited on Rosh Chodesh and on holidays, including Chanukah. It extolls Hashem’s power and His love for Am Yisrael, thanking Him for all of the miracles He has performed in rescuing Am Yisrael from those who would do us harm. One of the “Connections” to Hallel was the lyrics of a song called “The Miracle” by Queen. For the unwashed few who have never heard of Queen, Queen was a highly popular rock group that recorded in the 1970’s and 1980’s[2]. The lead singer, Freddie Mercury, had possibly the best voice in music ever, possessing simply incredible reach. The lead guitarist, Brian May, played his home-built “Red Special” guitar in a league of his own. Freddie was a flaming homosexual and the name “Queen” is an overture to his lifestyle. The fact that Koren would include one of their songs in a siddur borders on radical[3]. “The Miracle”, recorded in 1987, was not one of Queen’s better songs, but what interests us here are the lyrics, shortened here for purposes of brevity:

Every drop of rain that falls in Sahara Desert says it all,

It’s a miracle,

All G-d’s creations great and small, the Golden Gate and the Taj Mahal,

That’s a miracle,

Test tube babies being born, mothers, fathers dead and gone,

It’s a miracle,

We’re having a miracle on earth, Mother Nature does it all for us,

The wonders of this world go on, the hanging Gardens of Babylon,

Captain Cook and Cain and Able, Jimi Hendrix to the Tower of Babel

It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle…

The song is telling us that certain “wonders of this world” that we take for granted, wonders both Divine and man-made, especially things of beauty, should be considered miraculous. If this is the way Koren understands the song, then they couldn’t have found a more ill-fitting location to insert it – as the “Connection” to the second paragraph of Hallel [Tehillim 114]. This particular paragraph describes the exodus from Egypt, in which Hashem performs overt miracles, temporarily placing the laws of physics into suspended animation: “When Israel went out of Egypt… The sea saw it, and fled: the Jordan River was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs… Tremble, o earth, at the presence of Hashem… Who turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.” The connection between the miracles in this paragraph of Hallel and the “hanging gardens of Babylon” is weak at best and non-existent at worst. This “Connection” seems to be poorly connected.

Or maybe it isn’t. Perhaps the connection of the “Connection” is stronger than we might first think. The holiday of Chanukah celebrates two miracles: One miracle was the victory of the Hasmonean Maccabi’s over the Seleucid Greeks. The Greeks were the world’s only super-power while the Maccabi’s were a ragtag group of insurgents. Their chances of victory were slim-to-nil[4] and yet they somehow emerged victorious. The second miracle was the jug that contained enough oil to burn for only one day but somehow burned for eight days. Which miracle was the greater of the two[5]?

This question was asked by the MaHaRaL from Prague in Chidushei Aggadot [Shabbat 21b]. His answer is so important that we bring it here verbatim: “Now one can ask: Just because of a miracle that enabled them to observe the mitzvah of lighting the Temple Menorah, why go to the length of establishing a whole new holiday? If Jewish law requires one to establish a day of thanksgiving, it is surely because one’s life was saved on that day – not merely because one was able to observe a particular mitzvah. Further, the Al haNissim prayer[6] does not even refer to the miracle of oil at all. So why does the Talmud give such centrality to the miracle of the oil? The answer is that the real purpose of the holiday is to celebrate the military victory over the Greeks. But the military victory seen by itself was not self‑evident as having been miraculous – it was easily taken as a mere military victory in conventional terms. But the oil that lasted for eight days was an undeniable miracle; hence, it was used as the symbol of the entire victory, to demonstrate that not only it, but the military events, too, were entirely miraculous.” To summarize, the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks is the miracle of Chanukah. The indisputable miracle of the oil was required in order to show that the disputably natural military victory was equally miraculous.

Referring back to “The Miracle”, one could argue that the overt miracles described in the Hallel – the splitting of the sea and the trembling of the earth – are necessary to demonstrate that “All G-d’s creations great and small, the Golden Gate and the Taj Mahal” are just as miraculous. Paradoxically, Hashem’s beneficence has jaded us. Sometimes it takes some good old fashioned shock and awe for us to recalibrate.

If this is what the folks at Koren had in mind, then they were spot on.

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Freida, and Yocheved Sarah bat Miriam.

[1] I’m not sure that a similar siddur is required for Israeli youth. Educators feel free to sound off here.

[2] A Classic Rock playlist that respects itself will include at least one song by Queen, usually more.

[3] Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in “Baruch she’Amar” on Pirkei Avot, reminds us that great words must be accepted regardless of their author. He brings the example of a verse written on the gates of countless shuls across the world [Bemidbar 24:5]: “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel!” This verse came from the mouth of Balaam, an evil prophet who tried unsuccessfully to curse Am Yisrael and eventually ended up being killed in battle by Pinchas.

[4] I remember hearing a lecture in which it was proven that given the Greek war doctrine and Israeli topography in the vicinity of Modi’in and Jerusalem, a Greek victory was impossible. Apparently our Sages felt differently.

[5] Most Israeli schoolchildren would say that it’s the former while most schoolchildren living in the Diaspora would say it’s the later. This is a topic for another shiur.

[6] Al ha’Nissim is added to the amida on Chanukah.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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 2001 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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