We live in an age of miracles and wonder.
Does that sound like a ridiculous statement – to characterize the age of the Internet, gene therapy and biological science as an age of miracles? For many people, it does sound ridiculous. To their ears, I might as well be a visitor from medieval times, here to turn science on its head and usher in a decidedly less enlightened worldview.
Judaism and I have the greatest regard for science. That said, I do not believe a genuine and healthy respect for science precludes an embrace of miracles. Far from it. I believe that miracles do happen all the time. The “rub,” as Hamlet might have suggested, is with how “miracle” is defined.
A miracle is anything that “should not” happen in the logical, rational normal course of events. And God should have a hand in a genuine miracle. That said, a miracle is not fantastical. If we limit the things that constitute “miracles” to the earth standing still or events that run contrary to physical law, then we not only tarnish the laws God has established for the physical world but we diminish our ability to see the miracles that play out in our lives every day.
Over three hundred years ago King Louis XIV of France asked Pascal, the great philosopher of his day, to give him proof of the existence of miracles. Without hesitation, Pascal answered, “Why, the Jews, your Majesty. The Jews.”
History does not tell us the king’s reaction, but we do know exactly what Pascal meant because he explained it clearly in his masterwork, Pensees. In that work, he states that the fact that the Jewish people had survived even to his day was proof enough for him that miracles occur. After all, what rational explanation existed to make sense of our continued presence upon the world’s stage?
A more modern historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote a ten-volume encyclopedia of human history. In the course of those many volumes the one thing that contradicted his “universal” rules governing the inexorable decline of every people on earth was the continued flourishing of the Jewish people.
Only the Jews.
Despite history’s brutal attempts to destroy us, we have managed to defy all predictions and logical expectation of our demise.
Just as we are able to look back and smile at the famous 1964 Look magazine article that confidently predicted “The Vanishing American Jew” (it is Look that no longer exists), we can search through history with a rueful smile and note the fall of the powerful empires that worked mightily to ensure our demise – from the Akkadians to the Babylonians to the Persians to the Third Reich.
Jewish history – indeed, Jewish existence – defies rational explanation. We are a miracle.
The miraculous is so essential to who we are that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said “A Jew who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”
The threats to our existence have come from external forces – and sometimes from within the Jewish community, as when we clamored to assimilate into Hellenistic culture during the early years of the Hellenistic Empire. It was only the miracle of Chanukah – and by that I mean a good deal more than the oil lasting a full eight days – that once again allowed us to survive as a dedicated people.
Yes, we had survived and we had achieved military victory over a much more powerful foe. However, it was not our military victory alone that constituted the miracle. There have been many improbable victories over time that were not miraculous. What makes a miracle a miracle, in addition to being an outcome that shouldn’t have happened, is the hand of God. Our miraculous victory at Chanukah teaches us little about military strategy and everything about ourselves and the world, but about God as well.
Without God, there is no miracle.
Which brings us to our little dreidel. In its modesty, it teaches us a great deal about God. Just as the dreidel spins around a central point and topples when it begins to lose its connection to that point, so too do we begin to lose our footing when we begin to lose our connection to our center, to God.