Have you ever experienced a miracle?
People, I’ve learned, are quick to answer “yes”. Some will describe how they bounced back from a terminal illness or emerged unscathed from a car wreck. The bright-eyed crowd gush about how they experience a miracle every morning when they open their eyes. One wonders, is a daily miracle still a miracle? Many call their children their miracles. Is childbirth a miracle? The sceptics would stop you there and insist: “Define miracle”.
Chanukah celebrates miracles, right? Sounds like the place to find a working definition for the supernatural. We all know about the eight-day oil marvel and the extraordinary victory of a band of yeshivah boys over the world’s mightiest army. Full-blown miracles.
But, when the Maccabees found that one tiny sealed oil jug, was that a miracle? Or was it just mazal?
Each night at the Chanukah lights, we sing “Haneirot Halalu”, a song of praise for everything that G-d did for us during the Chanukah story. We thank G-d for His “Nissim”, “niflaot” and “teshuot”- miracles, wonders and salvation. Judaism isn’t into poetic redundancy, so three different expressions means that we thank G-d for three different types of His benevolence.
We often face situations where the outcome could go either way. You bid for a business contract or bring a new product to market. You may succeed or fail. You need someone to “put in a good word with the Big Boss” to make it work. When things turn out well, that’s “teshuot”, Hashem’s “salvation”. In modern English, we’d say it’s when G-d “tips the odds in your favour”.
Chanukah is a story in three acts. It starts with the uprising of fed-up Maccabees who revolted against local authorities when they chose to sacrifice a pig in downtown Modi’in. Matisyahu and his sons were bold enough to confront and oust the local cops. Brave, yes, but no miracle. Modi’in only had a small Hellenist garrison, which the angry Hasmonean family easily routed. The fight could have gone either way, but G-d tipped the scale in our favour. “Thank you, G-d, for your ‘teshuot'”.
Part two of the story was an outright miracle. Miracles are the stuff of splitting the sea or pausing the Sun. A miracle is when the doctors feel that they need to rewrite the medical journals. “Miracle” means “busting Nature”. When the handful of faithfuls ousted the world’s most advanced army at Chanukah, that was a Miracle- the undeniable hand of G-d. “And for your ‘nissim'”.
“Wonders” are moments that leave you gawking, but are not miraculous. They’re serendipitous moments like when you sit on the plane next to that very doctor you’ve battled for months to get your ailing gran to see. They’re the stories of guys who miss the subway and get to their World Trade Centre offices late on 9/11. When these things happen, you see G-d’s guiding hand. They are not miracles. When the Jews found one itsy jug of pure olive oil in the disarray of their invaded Temple, it was a wow moment; Providence but not a miracle. “And for your ‘niflaot'”.
When you experience an open miracle, G-d is in your face. You can’t deny His involvement in this episode of your life. When the stars align for you and you find that parking spot or chance upon your future spouse, you might see the Divine hand, or you might dismiss it as “coincidence”. And if you appreciate waking up in the morning or you are starstruck when your child is born, you marvel at the wonders of Nature.
Chanukah teaches us to be grateful for all three experiences: Miracles allow us to accept that G-d is in control. Providence invites us to appreciate that G-d looks out for us. Appreciating G-d’s everyday wonders invite Him into your daily life.
We’d all love to enjoy mind-blowing miracles. We’re convinced they’d deepen our relationship with our Creator. In reality, if we intend to hook up with G-d when He breaks the rules for us, we will find very few opportunities to connect with Him. When we learn to recognise that every element of ordinary life is a gift from G-d, we develop a sustainable and meaningful relationship with Him.
Adapted from a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.