26 December 2014

Parshat Vayigash 5775

4 Tevet 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh

Post-Chanukah miracles
by Daniel Pinner

Dedicated to the memory of my friend and mentor Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane Hy”d and his wife Taliyah Hy”d, murdered by Arab terrorists on their way home from Jerusalem 14 years ago this Shabbat, 5th Tevet 5761 (31st December 2000).

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Vayiggash almost always falls the Shabbat immediately after Chanukah. The last time there was a Shabbat between Chanukah and Parashat Vayiggash was in 5761 (2001), and the next time this will happen will be in 5781 (2020).

Chanukah is the festival which celebrates two distinctly separate miracles. The first (and more important) is the military victory of the Hasmoneans over the Seleucid Empire – the victory of the few against the many, a disparate group of untrained guerrilla fighters against the mightiest army in the world. The second (and secondary) is the miracle of the oil which should have sufficed for just one day lasting instead for eight days.

These two miracles fall into two distinctly separate categories of miracles. The military victory was a public event, recorded not only in our chronicles but in the history books of the nations of the world. However, it contained no unarguably miraculous visitations, no events which changed the course of nature, such as the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Red Sea, or the Giving of the Torah – events which any unbiased observer, however sceptical, would be forced to concede were supernatural and miraculous.

No doubt there are rational, natural explanations for the Maccabees’ defeating the Seleucid forces in any given battle. After all, small irregular forces can often rely on the element of surprise, greater flexibility, greater mobility, superior knowledge of the local terrain, higher motivation, and the like to achieve tactical victories.

But the strategic victory, the war as a whole, was clearly miraculous.

The miracle of the oil, by contrast, was a clear violation of the usual course of nature – but was witnessed only by a tiny handful of people. Apart from the Kohanim (Priests) in the Holy Temple – and not even all of them – no one could have witnessed the miracle of the oil.

To understand the implications of these two miracles, we need to understand the nature of miracles in general. And for this, we turn to the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270).

Commenting on Genesis 17:1, when G-d introduced Himself to Abraham as E-l Shaddai (“Almighty G-d”), the Ramban explains that the reason that He introduced Himself here with this Name was that “it is with this Name that hidden miracles are wrought for the tzaddikim, ‘to save their soul from death and to sustain them in life through famine’ (Psalms 33:19), delivering them from the sword in war. Such was with all the miracles that were wrought for Abraham and the [other] Patriarchs, and all the subsequent [miracles] that the Torah promises in Parashat Bechukotai and Ki Tavo, [i.e. the promises of] blessings [for obeying the Torah] and curses [for disobeying it]. For all these are miraculous; after all, there is no natural reason why the rains should come in their appropriate seasons [Leviticus 26:4] just because we worship G-d, or why the sky should become iron [ibid 19] when we sow in the shmitta year. Thus, too, with all that the Torah commands. All are miracles, and all control natural fortune, even though the normal course of the world is in no way changed as it was by Moshe our Master in the Ten Plagues, at the Splitting of the Sea, the Manna, the well in the desert, and so forth”.

Addressing the calculation by which Jochebed was some 130 years old when she gave birth to Moshe, the Ramban returns to this theme: “The Tanach mentions miracles which were performed by a prophet after he had already prophesied them, or an angel who appeared for a divine mission; but it does not mention miracles which occurred spontaneously to help a tzaddik or to destroy an evil person.... The entire foundation of the Torah is hidden miracles; the whole purpose of the Torah is only miracles, not nature or custom. After all, all the promises that the Torah makes are miraculous” (commentary to Genesis 46:15).

So according to the Ramban, a miracle is not a supernatural event. Rather, a miracle is any event, or series of events, natural or supernatural, which is calibrated for the sake of Israel, and which thereby demonstrates the Divine will.

Hence the guerrilla war between the Maccabees and the Seleucid Empire which the Maccabees won falls into the category of a miracle, even though each individual confrontation might be explicable in natural terms. (Israel’s War of Independence, Six Day War, and Yom Kippur War all follow the identical paradigm.)

The corollary is that not every supernatural event is a miracle. If, for example, the English Channel were to split for one night leaving a dry path connecting Dover to Calais, then though this event would be inexplicable, it would not constitute a miracle.

And similarly, if you were to fill the tank of your car with enough petrol to travel 100 km yet it would suffice for 800 km, then even though this would be inexplicable (not to say useful), it would not constitute a miracle.

But when the one-day supply of olive oil in the sole remaining undefiled jar with the Kohen Gadol’s seal intact lasted for eight days – that was a miracle. It was an event that was calibrated for the sake of Israel, giving the Kohanim the time they needed to procure a new supply of olive oil.

And then after eight days, the Kohanim went back to refilling the Menorah daily, with its regular supply of oil.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 25a) relates a well-known story: “One Friday afternoon, [Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa] saw his daughter looking upset. He said to her: My daughter, why are you sad? She said to him: I confused a jar of vinegar with a jar of oil, and I filled the Shabbat candles with it! He said to her: My daughter, why are you worried? He Who commanded the oil to burn will also command the vinegar to burn. And a Tanna related that it continued to burn throughout the day, until they used it to light Havdalah candle”.

That is to say, the fact that oil burns is an expression of the Divine will; and the fact that the vinegar burnt for Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and his family that Shabbat was no less and no more an expression of the Divine will.

And we can extrapolate from this that the fact that one jar of oil would normally fuel the Menorah in the Holy Temple for just one day is no less an expression of the Divine will than that same jar of oil fuelling the same Menorah for eight days.

And this chain of logic should cause us to rethink everything we had previously thought about miracles. If previously we thought of miracles as the vanishingly small number of events, such as the Ten Plagues or the Splitting of the Red Sea, in which G-d directly interferes in nature, then we can now understand miracles as being (potentially at least) every event that ever happens. That the sun rose this morning, that the dog barks, that we are able to breathe air, that the rain falls, that the Shabbat candles burn – these are all expressions of the Divine will no less than the sun standing still over Gibeon and the moon standing still over the Ayalon Valley for an entire day, giving Joshua and the Israelite forces time to defeat the Amorites and conquer the territory (Joshua 10:12-14).

In the Al ha-Nissim prayer which we said a few times every day during Chanukah, we thanked G-d “for the miracles and for the salvation…and for the wars that You wrought for our ancestors…You handed over the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few, and the impure into the hands of the pure, and the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the [Jewish] wanton sinners into the hands of those who keep Your Torah”.

Though the victory of the weak over the mighty and of the few over the many is clearly miraculous, the victory of the pure over the impure, of the righteous over the evil, and of those who keep G-d’s Torah over the sinners does not seem miraculous. Though in the usual course of events the mighty defeat the weak and the many defeat the few, there is no principle that evil people are stronger than righteous people, that impure are mightier than pure.

But Chanukah teaches us that all these are equally expressions of the Divine will. That the few and weak defeated the many and mighty was just as much G-d’s will that the pure and righteous keepers of His Torah would defeat the impure and evil sinners.

As the lesson of Chanukah is that G-d intervenes in nature to grant Israel victory in war over a vastly superior enemy and to keep the Menorah burning for as long as necessary, so the lesson of post-Chanukah is that ordinary day-to-day events and natural phenomena are equally expressions of the Divine will.

And on the first Shabbat after Chanukah, Parashat Vayiggash relates the beginning of Israel’s exile – the culmination of G-d’s promise and warning to Abraham in the Covenant between the Parts (Genesis 15:13-16), 220 years earlier, that his descendants would be exiled and persecuted in a foreign land.

Now while the Torah records a few – a very few – instances in which G-d directly intervened in the lives of the Patriarchs to bring the Children of Israel down to Egypt, the overwhelming majority of events were either entirely natural, or else supernatural events whose supernatural characters would have been known only to a tiny group of people.

In the first category are events such as Jacob sending his son Joseph from Hebron to Shechem to check on his brothers’ welfare, and Joseph’s “chance” encounter with a man (an angel in the form of a man?) who told him that his brothers had moved on to Dothan (Genesis 37:12-17).

In the second category are such events as Joseph interpreting the dreams of the royal butler and the royal baker in prison (40:5-22).

However, the overall process of events – sibling rivalry, a slave thrown into prison who is granted a royal pardon 12 years later and who rises to become the second-in-command to the king, a bountiful crop followed by famine – is a natural if remarkable historical sequence.

For sure, as Jacob was travelling on his way southwards and reached Beer Sheva, G-d Himself had to reassure him that he was doing the right thing, and only after that did Jacob continue on his journey to Egypt (46:1-7); but that Divine intervention, like so many others, was not an open miracle – it was known solely to Jacob.

Like Chanukah, the exile to Egypt (which begins in Parashat Vayiggash) and the subsequent redemption from it was all part of G-d’s plan for the nation of Israel, and by extension part of His plan for the world as a whole.

And as with the exile to Egypt, much of the Chanukah sequence played out in seemingly natural events.

And from this, we can deduce that the events in our own lives, from our own private affairs to the great epoch-making global events sweeping the world now, are also under G-d’s guidance, calibrated for the ultimate benefit of Israel.