Al HaNissim (For the Miracles)

December 27, 2011Bill Page

One of the Hanukkah songs we sing begins with the words, al hanissim (for the miracles), and thanks God for all the miracles performed for our fathers, in those days, in this season (the last referring to the Hanukkah season). So what are the miracles, plural, for which we are thanking God? The miracle of the oil burning for eight days, in the case of Hanukkah, and I guess also the miracle of the Exodus, etc., etc. However, I immediately had a second, rather disturbing, set of questions enter my mind: how about the miracle of the destruction of the First Temple, the Second Temple, the Babylonian exile, the Diaspora, the Shoah? This was not going in a good direction.  And then I got the mental image of little children playing with their “miracle toys,” superheroes like Superman and Batman. And it occurred to me that little children, who are mostly powerless, seem to have a great fondness for these superheroes. And then it occurred to me that we Jews also seem to have a fondness for miracles.

This is actually a fairly rationale way to respond to helplessness—invent a superhero to be your friend and use his (rarely her) superpowers to provide you with some necessary help. Applied to God, however, this kind of thinking is theologically disquieting, to say the least. And then I had a final thought about Jewish miracles.  Maybe rather than considering them a kind of infantile fantasy, perhaps they really represent a uniquely Jewish perspective on hope.  When you are powerless, obviously, you get the short end of the stick most of the time. Jewish history provides a very long list of these unhappy situations. So, how should you respond? The traditional Jewish has always been to choose life, rather than death; hope, rather than despair. So, if actual help is not really on the horizon, what shall we do? We shall hope, and we shall work to make that hope a reality. Even when the real history of the Maccabees is nowhere as positive as the story we tell and retell, we still prefer the miraculous story.  Interestingly, despite a long history of troubles, we Jews are still around some 3,500 years or so since Father Abraham began his Jewish journey. Maybe our belief in miracles isn’t so infantile after all. After all, the national anthem of the Jewish state is HaTikvah, the hope.  

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