There is an interesting story in the Gemara that discusses Chanuka (Mes’ Shabbat). The rabbis wrote that “There was a case of a man whose wife died leaving him a son to nurse. He did not have enough money to pay a wet-nurse, a miracle occurred and he grew breasts and breast-fed his son.
Rav Yosef said ‘Come and see how great this man was that such a miracle happened for him.’ Abaye said ‘On the contrary, how bad it was that the natural ordered had to be changed for him’” (Shabbat 53b).
The two opinions in the Gemara do not necessarily disagree on the need for miracles. They both hold that miracles are generally superfluous and undesirable, as they require a change in the natural order. This change is not something to be encouraged and we would prefer natural events that hold no need for such supernatural happenings. The first opinion is stressing the fact that if someone did have a miracle performed on their behalf, then they must have deserved it and have been a special individual.
According to this, doing without miracles is to be preferred to a miraculous event. Better to do without miracles than to get to a situation where a miracle is needed to save the day.
In the light of this let us examine the miracles of Chanukah and Yosef. God performed a great miracle on Chanukah. The oil that should only have lasted for one day lasted for eight. But was this miracle really necessary? In fact it was not. God could have designed the events differently, and the Maccabees could have found eight jugs of oil and not one. This would have been miraculous enough, and would not have forced God to change nature and make the oil last for so long, eight times its natural capacity.
The same can be said of Yosef’s miraculous delivery from the pit of snakes and scorpions. Would it have been so difficult to arrange that he fell into a pit that contained other, less lethal animals. Why did Yosef have to be thrown into a pit of snakes and scorpions demanding a supernatural miracle of salvation?
The answer to both these questions is the same. Both the pious Jews of the Chanukah story and Yosef needed the miracle. Both were figures in a larger drama that was controlled by God, but they were both uncertain whether this was the case. How did the Maccabees fighting the Greeks and the Hellenists know that God was on their side, and not of that of the Hellenists themselves? How did Yosef know that God was with him and supported his claim against the brothers? Maybe the brothers were right and he was just a dreamer.
In such cases God appeared to ensure the key players that their paths were correct, to show them that they had Divine backing and consent. God performed a revealed miracle to show that He was there.
When the Maccabees entered the defiled Temple after a physically exhausting and emotionally draining battle they needed a boost. The miracle of the oil came to show them that God had directed the battle that preceded the miracle. When Yosef survived the ordeal of the snake and scorpion infested pit, he realised this as a sign from God. God had ensured Yosef that He was to be with him in all the subsequent adventures and trials.
The miracles were not at all superfluous; rather, they came at an opportune moment in history to give a message. The miracles did not only come to save and help, they came to encourage and strengthen the people’s resolve.
If we look around at our personal and national lives we are also witnesses to miraculous events. Mostly we write these off as natural events. Children are born, trees and plants grow, life continues. The Jewish people survive yet another attack and win another battle. Occasionally we take note of supernatural occurrences; a couple has a baby after several years’ attempting to do so, people are healed miraculously. The same is true on a national level. The fact that both the United States and the Soviet Union voted for the establishment of the State of Israel in the United Nations on the 29th of November, 1947 was a sign of the hand of God in the Zionist dream. So was the phenomenal victory in the Six-Day War in 1967. The fact that there were so few casualties, but a huge scale of destruction during the Gulf war of 1991, was also miraculous.
These miraculous events come to enlighten us and ensure us that even though God chooses not to appear daily, He nevertheless ‘runs the show’ from behind the curtain.
The Miracles of Chanukah
There is a famous question posed by the Beit Yosef. “Why was the festival established for eight days, as there was enough oil for one day, the miracle was only for seven days?” (Beit Yosef on Tur, Orach Chayim 670). The oil lasted for eight days, but only seven days were miraculous, as there was sufficient oil for one day to begin with.
There are numerous answers to this question, but we can offer a suggestion based on our discussion here. The truth is that the miracle of the oil was not the only miracle of Chanukah. There was also the miracle of winning the war (even though it could be seen as a ‘regular’ victory in the course of a ‘normal’ war). The eight days of the festival represent this, seven for the oil and one for the war.
To return to the beginning and our original question, what is the relationship between these two miracles, of the oil and the victory? The oil comes to show God’s hand in history and our destiny, it comes to prove that God was the worker of the miracle of the battle as well. True, to establish a festival we require a supernatural miracle, and therefore the festival was instituted as a result of the miracle of the oil. But it is still fitting that we find time during the festival to thank and praise God for our military victories as well. During our prayers we give thanks for the miracles, specifically the winning of wars.
Chanukah is a time to reflect on miracles, those of war and oil, and miracles in general. We are surrounded by miracles, as individuals and as a nation. Chanukah is a perfect opportunity to recognize them and to remember to thank and praise God for all the miracles, those that we notice as well as those that we tend to take for granted. All of them together teach us that God is intimately involved in our lives and is always there to guide and protect us.