The following essay was written by Rabbi Rick Sherwin of Congregation Beth Am in Longwood, Florida, and emailed to his congregation as a Hanuka reflection (2014).
We might understand the Third Commandment–Do not take the Name of God in vain–to mean “you shall not treat God as a Magician.” When we believe that the verbal correctness our prayers moves God to grant our wish, we are, indeed, treating God as a Divine Magician.
All too often, we think of miracles as magic.
- For Angelina Jolie, it was God’s answer to her prayer that the sun emerge from behind the clouds so she could have more light for filming.
- For UCF receiver Breshad Perriman, it was God guiding the winning Hail Mary pass into his hands.
In Jewish Tradition, it is hubris to assume that our words can persuade God to intervene, shifting the pattern of the sun and the clouds, or carrying a football directly into a receiver’s hands.
Many people offer heartfelt prayers for miracles that intercept the process of nature. Rabbi Harold Kushner responds that if such prayers worked, no one would ever die, because no prayer is offered more sincerely than a prayer for life, for health and recovery from illness, for ourselves and for those we love.
People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or girlfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. The true miracle is in the discovery that they have more strength, more courage than they ever thought they had.
When the U.S. hockey team defeated the Soviet team in the semi-finals of the 1980 Winter Olympics, Al Michaels excitedly asked all Americans, “Do you believe in miracles?!” Yes, we do. But not the victory. The miracle was the strength, the stamina, the support and the spirit to do what no one in the world thought our team could do. It is true in sports. It is true in life.
We believe in miracles! For us, an unexpected turning point in our experience of life is a miracle insofar as it transcends our understanding. How can it be that the Maccabees overpowered the massive Syrian-Greek army? How can it be that the modern State of Israel, surrounded by hostile Arab countries on all sides, continues to exist? David Ben-Gurion was fond of explaining Israel’s existence as a miracle: “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.”
Centuries after the battle of the Maccabees, the Rabbis of the Talmud recorded a story about a small jar of oil that would kindle the Eternal Light for the eight days of Hanuka. The miracle was not how long the jar lasted, but rather that someone lit the candle knowing it might not stay lit. The message of the miracle of the oil is in the attempt to do what cannot be done, to overcome odds, to remain optimistic even in times of darkness, to strive for success when there is every reason to doubt.
The miracle is not in the magic of wishes come true, but rather in the strength of spirit that moves us forward in life. The miracle was not in the Maccabees’ defeat of the Syrian-Greek army; it was in the battle cry to remain true to who we are, and the strength to remain true to our convictions.
The second b’rakha over lighting the candles affirms our belief in miracles:
We praise You, our Eternal God, Ruling Spirit of the Universe
for creating the miraculous spirit in our ancestors of old and in our own time.
The wonder that life can be what we never thought it could be, and the wonder that we have the strength of spirit emerge from darkness into light–that’s a miracle!
Rabbi Rick & Elissa Sherwin
Congregation Beth Am