It’s no secret that I have a fondness for what Canadians call American Thanksgiving – and what I grew up simply calling Thanksgiving. It symbolizes the best of American ideals: a foundational myth that invokes religious tolerance, co-operation between immigrants and native peoples, and an appreciation of the land’s bounty. Families of different geographic and cultural origins come together to celebrate the holiday in their own ways, inflected by religious and ethnic traditions that somehow meld with the American dream. Whenever our schedules allow for it, my Canadian family goes south to join with my American family for this unique national custom.
And now I have an added reason to mark the festival. Making our way to Massachusetts on Thanksgiving morning, I took my car for a spin – literally. Without elaborating on the details, my car went out of control, hit the median guardrail, spun across two lanes of traffic on the New York State Thruway, finally coming to rest on a sharp incline by the side of the road. It took a few moments for us to catch our breath. We realized how blessed we were to emerge utterly unscathed. I think of this as my own Thanksgiving miracle.
Modern-day miracles occur in ways that seem ordinary and unspectacular – so much so that their miraculousness remains invisible. We walk, we breathe, we love, we think, we feel, and we take the delicate and complicated balance that enables those things to happen as our due. For most of us, it takes a brush with catastrophe to make us reconnect with the blessed miraculousness of ordinary life – and to give thanks for it.
The stories we tell about Hanukkah emphasize the more dramatic manifestations of the miraculous – battles won against out-sized foes, a defiled sacred space reclaimed and purified, fire that burns contrary to the laws of physics. Like American Thanksgiving, our Hanukkah narratives invoke important Jewish ideals: sovereignty, peoplehood and a refusal to be defeated by adversity, persecution or even the limits of the material world. Our celebration of this festival in our dark and cold season reminds us of the great miracles, but also of the miraculousness that’s inherent in our daily lives.
Because Hanukkah is considered a minor festival in the Jewish calendar, it has only a small presence in Jewish liturgy. One of the places it shows up is in a paragraph added to the daily prayer that begins, “al ha-nissim” (on the miracles). In the spirit of that prayer, which discusses “mighty deeds” whose outcomes we reap, I add some smaller miracles.
Most visible among them are the Hanukkah lights we place in our windows. We can purchase candles or oil and need not rely on divine intervention for eight days of light. But there is something of the miraculous in the hanukkiah displayed so visibly and freely, and without fear, in a country that honours religious and cultural diversity. That public display of our tradition is of a piece with the proliferation of Jewish education at all levels, and the different modes of living Jewishly in our community.
We share the miraculous with our fellow Canadians: the breathtaking wilderness, our rights and freedoms, the interconnections among communities, plentiful food, clean water. We benefit from these not because we have worked hard for them, but because the accident of birth or the luck of migration placed us here.
Hanukkah reminds us to take account of the nature of miracles even – or, perhaps, especially – when they comprise our ordinary lives. We need to recognize the miraculous, but not because of some schmaltzy sentimentalism. If we consciously acknowledge the uncelebrated miracles that buttress our lives and give them meaning, we will work to keep them going – as the lights of the ancient menorah kept burning.