Reflections on Hanukkah and Miracles
by Jeremy Rosen
Why do miracles happen sometimes and not others? Is it because we deserve them?
Many rabbis like to claim that when bad things happen, it is only because we have done something to deserve it. So why do horrible things happen to, say, newly born children who couldn’t possibly have done anything to deserve it? Why are millions of innocent children murdered? Why were pious, learned, charitable people hacked to death in a Jerusalem synagogue as they prayed to God? Were they punished for being Jews? Or were the hundreds of thousands of women, children and men of Aleppo tortured, raped, bombed, gassed and killed for being the wrong sort of Muslim? It is too facile to think that God works that way.
Some will tell you that it has to do with the gilgulim, the transmigration of souls and punishment for earlier crimes. Such irrational theories are a recent arrival on the Jewish scene, not found in the Torah or the Talmud. Rational minds find these ideas as illogical as resorting to astrologers and palm readers.
Religions tell us that repentance, prayer and charity avert evil decrees, or that those performing a good deed are protected. And yet it is said that there is no justice in this world. Is it just our need for certainty that gulls us into believing what we want to?
It is true that the Torah speaks as if God conforms to human standards — promising good things if we obey and bad things if we do not. But one cannot learn law or philosophy from biblical metaphors. We are warned not to think of rewards for our actions, but to do things because they are the right things to do. As Rabbi Yaakov says, we simply do not know why the good suffer and the bad prosper (Avot 4:16).
The simple answer is that while we may discover the rules of the universe, we just do not know how God works. The Torah itself says (Deuteronomy 24:16) that one is only punished for one’s own sins, not for others’. But what if one has not done anything to deserve an early death? Bad things happen. Not in payment for actions, but simply as the way of the world we live in. If a jet crashes, it is usually because of a malfunction or terrorism. Earthquakes, avalanches or typhoons are part of nature, not designed to pay humans back for some offense.
The function of religion is not, as is often stated, to answer all our questions. It cannot. That is, after all, why the Talmud says that sometimes it is better not to inquire too much about things we cannot know. Rather religions function to help us cope, by giving us a framework for living that incorporates the unknown and the unknowable. We have to deal in life with things beyond our control, as well as the consequences of our own daily behavior. Having a framework enables us to adjust to tragedy and loss. It’s when one has no framework for living, that depression can so easily set in. Focusing on a mystical idea enables us to think beyond our immediate physical world, to handle pain by thinking of other, more comforting things. Exercises such as deep breathing and relaxing help us cope with physical pain, mental pain and the unthinkable.
The biblical Hebrew word for faith is “emunah.” But emunah is not a theological proposition. It has a root of being firm, strong, reliable — having the resilience, the strength to persevere and survive. Belief in God does not necessarily mean everything will be taken care of or put right. Belief gives reassurance, something to hold onto — an alternative to an intolerable present.
We humans are biodiverse organisms with millions of microbes within us and without. Sometimes they turn against us and cause malfunctions and diseases. Sometimes they fight off intruders and sometimes, like fifth columnists, they welcome them in. Why are we not surprised when slowly our bodies deteriorate towards death? We may mourn and be sad at the loss. But we hardly need an explanation of “why.”
When something goes wrong in our bodies, it is not a malevolent agent punishing us. All of this is simply how the world works. As the Talmud says, “The world runs according to its own rules.” (Avodah Zara 54b)
Is it a punishment if I was born with a poor brain but a strong body? Or if I am less gifted musically, but better at a sport? Or if I am born into a rich family or a poor one? We all have some things going for us, even the most handicapped. And plenty of humans who seem gifted with enormous benefits squander them.
I guess that if we were to look back at our lives and at history, we would probably discover that there’s a reasonable balance between the good things that have happened to most of us and the bad. Our task is to make the most and best out of our lives, our gifts, and our circumstances.
Hanukkah reminds us of the proactive — taking responsibility, of facing challenges and getting a second chance. It’s a most relevant idea. Of how 2,165 years ago we were threatened with extinction and yet we survived. All these years later, others are being threatened with extinction now. The world stands by as people are suffering in Syria. That’s why it’s so important to be in control of our own destiny. But it is also essential to care and be proactive about helping others beyond our own little Jewish world.
Hanukkah also stands for the spiritual miracle of the oil, of keeping flames alight when others would extinguish them. It is a historical example of when things went right for us. Other days in the calendar remind us of our catastrophes. Neither we nor the universe are perfect. There is no panacea. No perfect solution or answer. We only know we must do our best.
Maimonides, interestingly, in his laws about Hanukkah, ends with a little homily on how important peace is: peace for us and peace for the world. We ignore the rest of the world at our peril, not to mention moral failure. At the very moment that we celebrate our deliverance we must, says Maimonides, think about others, too.