Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            'Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,' that's how the phenomenon of supernatural events (namely marriages) is described in Fiddler on the Roof.  Well, our Sages were almost as ebullient (and redundant) in their composition of the Al Hasim (Concerning the Miracles) prayer, which we recite on Chanukah and Purim.  It goes like this:  And we thank You for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders.  It's a bit over the top, considering that God isn't even mentioned in Megilat Esther, and extra burning time for the little candles is hardly on a par with such Biblical miracles as the splitting of the Sea or making the sun stand still.  At first blush it seems that those old time Rabbis were trying to convince us that something special happened.  What was their agenda, anyway?  Let's see if we can't find out the method to their hyperbole.

            First, I'd like to mention another rabbinic gambit concerning Chanukah.  They wanted to convince us that Chanukah has its origins in the Torah, even though the Torah was completed over a thousand years earlier.  The cutest attempt is akin to the Bible Codes, which I loathe.  If you count so many words from the beginning of Genesis you'll get words describing the miracle of oil.  I can't get into that.  The Midrash tells us that the connection of the gifts of the tribal chiefs during the dedication of the Mishkan or portable Temple of the desert years (Numbers chapter 7) was purposefully juxtaposed with the lighting of the golden menorah in the Temple ((Ibid. 8:1-4), because someday there would be another re-dedication of the Temple that was entwined with lighting the menorah.  However, my favorite spurious attempt to find the basis for celebrating Chanukah in the Torah comes from the book of Leviticus.  Chapter 23 ends with the pronouncement: And Moses told the children of Israel these laws of the Lord's appointed holy days (verse 44).  The next chapter begins:  Command the children of Israel, and they shall take for you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually (24:2).  So, clearly the Torah is informing us that there will someday be a holiday proclaimed by the Jewish nation concerned with lighting the olive oil of the menorah.  All noble endeavors, but I believe totally unnecessary, because the Torah provides us with the framework for celebrating miracles.

            The Ma'or V'Shemesh (compiled posthumously from the writings of Reb Kalman Kalonymous Epstein, 1753-1825) records a fascinating idea of Reb Elimelech of Lizhinsk (1717-1786) that I believe helps put our awe of miracles in proper perspective.  Rabbi Epstein was commenting on this week's parsha about Yosef coming to the rescue of Pharaoh with his clear interpretations of the ruler's baffling dreams.  Reb Elimelech noticed that when Moshe started doing all his miracles in Egypt, Pharaoh called upon his magicians to duplicate the feats (Exodus 7:11).  There was no surprise, no wonder.  This was the ho-hum performance of trained professionals. The wizards themselves didn't marvel at what had happened, just another day at work.  Now, I believe that this was because it was merely a good magic trick (even though there are those who believe that these conjurers had occult powers).  They knew what would happen, because they had practiced it many times before.  There's this interesting show on TV called Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed.  Why would anyone want to make such a show?  The whole point of a magic show is the mystery.

            According to Reb Elimelech, it wasn't that way with Yosef.  When Yosef informs Pharaoh about the meaning of his dreams (Genesis 41:25-32), he mentions that the dreams and their explanation all come from God.  He was so emphatic that he mentions God four times in that short speech.  I had always felt that mentioning God was modesty on the part of Yosef, but Reb Elimelech teaches a more profound concept.  Yosef the Zadik keeps crediting God because he himself is blown away by the fact that God revealed this great secret to him.  A real zadik doesn't expect God to answer his prayers, and is excited and thrilled that God has come to help.  Remember the magician is pulling off this trick to burnish his own reputation; the Zadik is concerned for the greater glory of God. We can never get blasé about the Cosmic Director's attention to our puny needs in this vast universe under God's purview.  And that's a great Torah principle:  Be enthusiastic and energized by God's rushing to our aid.  That's the Mitzvah of Chanukah, praise God for the miracles performed for the Jewish nation.  Be excited, overwhelmed and flabbergasted.

            This idea exists in the Torah.  Avraham did it after his war with the kings; Ya'akov did it after his successful encounter with his brother; Yosef does it this week; and the entire Jewish nation did it at the shores of the Reed Sea.  Perhaps, the most famous example of this behavior is Yitro, Moshe's father in law.  The verse states:  Thereupon, Yitro rejoiced and said, "Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians (Exodus 18:10).  This is the root of the mitzvah of reciting Hallel.  Since we don't feel eloquent enough to do it on our own, we quote from the greatest of poets, King David and his Psalms. 

            So, we don't have to look for esoteric, hidden allusions to Chanukah in our Torah.  It's there conceptually, out in the open for all to see and emulate.  Perhaps the greatest lesson of Chanukah is to never get so jaded as to lose the childlike awe displayed by our ancestors when God came to our rescue.   And that explains the over the top wording of our Al HaNisim prayer.  We can't stop being in amazement at the greatness of God, and appreciative when these miracles are for our benefit.  Have a Chanukah and a life that's full of wonder!          


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