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Rabbi Bergman: 'What Is a Miracle?'

Historians may explain it as a natural event, but religious folks may see it differently, she says.

Rabbi Stacy Bergman of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners reflects on Hanukkah, which begins Saturday evening and ends Dec. 16: 


This week Jews throughout the world

are spinning dreidels,

Little tops with letters that spell out the sentence

"A great miracle happened there," 

meaning in the land of Israel.

Each night as we light Hanukkah candles,

We say a blessing thanking God

"for doing miracles for our fathers in those days,

and in our own day." 

In synagogue, we add

a paragraph al hanisim "for the miracles."


What was this great miracle?  


In Hebrew school we teach

the Talmudic story of lighting the menorah

in the rededicated Temple. 

There was only enough oil to last for one day,

but through a miracle of God

the oil lasted for eight days. 


It is a wonderful story. But is it true? 

The original sources of Hanukkah do not mention this story. They simply talk of a military victory.

Originally the Hanukkah story was about totally natural historical events. 

We tend to see a miracle as an extraordinary event which cannot be explained by the laws of nature. 

God parts the waters of the Sea,

God makes the sun stand still,

or God makes a little oil last eight days. 

We see a miracle as an amazing event

that neither science nor history can explain. 


But, if we look at the Hebrew

We may view miracles differently.

The Hebrew word for miracle is nes,

which simply means "banner." 

A miracle is not some magical event. 

It is more like a banner, which waves and which we can see.  A natural or historical event takes place; we can explain it. But if we look carefully,

we can say that this is the hand of God.


Our Torah portion demonstrates this idea as well.


Joseph is rescued from prison

and becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt. 

He then is able to rescue his brothers.

A series of historical events separates

and then reunites the brothers. 

Yet Joseph in next week's portion will say to his brothers, "So it was not you who sent me here, but God." 

God is at work behind the scenes.      

A miracle is a totally natural event

that historians can explain.

It becomes a miracle when a person of faith looks at the event and sees the hand of God. 

On this Shabbat of Hanukkah may we learn to look out at the world and declare, "A great miracle happened here."


Lisa Buchman December 08, 2012 at 11:30 AM
Rabbi Bergman, thank you for this reflection—food for thought! Happy Hanukkah!


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