In Plain Language: As the dreidel spins

Judaism is not a religion that is based on the supernatural, that relies on miracles... And yet the Jewish tradition is full of miraculous occurrences.

December 22, 2016 17:50
3 minute read.

Dreidels. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Do you believe in miracles? On the one hand, Judaism is not a religion that is based on the supernatural, that relies on miracles to authenticate itself. Indeed, there is a well-known rabbinic maxim that “we do not depend on miracles,” as well as the Torah’s statement “lo bashamayim hi” – it (the Torah and the interpretation of Jewish law) is not to be found in Heaven but, rather, in the hands of mankind.

And yet Jewish lore and literature are chock-full of miraculous occurrences that defy nature. The Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Reed Sea, the falling of the manna from the sky, and so forth, are all part of the Exodus saga. The sun stops in its path for Joshua, the Prophet Elisha brings a young boy back to life, water flows backward for Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud, and kabbalists are said to have all manner of extraordinary powers.

So which is it? Hanukka, which begins Saturday night, seems to confront this very same quandary, without providing us with a clear direction. The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat, focuses solely on the miracle of the oil, the one, pure cruse that amazingly lasted for eight days rather than just one. Yet in the “Al Hanissim” prayer recited throughout the Hanukka holiday, only the military victory of the Maccabean fighters over the much larger Syrian-Greek forces in 164 BCE is mentioned.

Perhaps we can glean the answer by examining two rather unexpected sources: The dreidel and the gregger. According to legend, the Greeks banned Torah study, yet we chose to ignore the ban, and when the enemy’s guards appeared, we quickly hid our holy books and pulled out the dreidel, as if we were engaged in a simple game of chance.

And the gregger, of course, is the traditional instrument we use on Purim – Hanukka’s “sister” post-biblical holiday – to drown out the sound of Haman’s name as the Megila is read.

The dreidel rests on the ground, and is held from above; conversely, the gregger is kept in the air, and held from below.

The message being sent is that miracles derive from two places, the Earth and the sky. Miracles, in effect, are a partnership between God and man; that is, we have our jobs to do, and God has His. On Hanukka, we courageously declared that we would not assimilate to a foreign culture, that we would be loyal only to our own faith, and we organized an army to defend that position.

On Purim, we fasted and prayed, and then also formed our own militia to battle against the Amalekite villains. In both cases, we were hopelessly outnumbered; in both cases, our prayers were answered, God fought on our side, and we prevailed.

It is arrogant to believe that we hold all the cards in the universe, that we are the sole masters of our fate. Yet, at the same time, we are not powerless, nor are we puppets whose actions are insignificant.

God is our Creator, our guide, the wellspring of our strength; without the Almighty’s assistance, we would have disappeared from the world stage long ago. Yet while He may be the Producer and the Director of this magnificent, ongoing play, we are the actors at center stage, and our part is indispensable to the production.

David Ben-Gurion was fond of saying that it is “what the Jews do” that will determine our success as a nation. Yet he also told a group of foreign military advisers – who warned him that it would take a divine miracle for the fledgling state to survive – that “miracles are our stock in trade” and part of our national character.

One of the greatest heroes of the Hanukka story is the Unknown Kohen.

He was the one who, in the midst of the raging battle, as the Temple was being destroyed and defiled by the Greeks, decided to take the only action he could.

He sealed and secreted one jar of oil, firm in the faith that we would emerge victorious and live to rededicate the Temple and light its Menorah once again. His faith was rewarded in the Hasmonean triumph, and it lives on in the Jewish people and in the modern State of Israel, whose symbol is that very Menorah and whose light is eternal.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;

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