Hanukkah is once again upon us, and we are reminded of one of the most famous miracles in Jewish history, the story of the infamous battle of the Maccabees in their struggle to preserve the fabric and legacy of Judaism in the face of a Greek empire that was hellbent on total assimilation and eradication of our people.
As we are told, there was only enough oil left to light the lamps for a single day, seemingly dooming the Maccabean revolt to failure – instead, the lamps stayed lit for eight days, allowing the small but resourceful band of Jewish rebels a seemingly impossible victory over the battle-hardened Greek soldiers.
What is a miracle? Simply put, it is an event so unlikely to happen that it is previously deemed impossible – and then one day, what was previously thought impossible becomes the possible.
As Jews, having survived over three millenniums against seemingly insurmountable odds, we have no choice but to believe in miracles. Whether it be moments of divine intervention, or the herculean efforts of extraordinary leaders, the existence of the Jewish people is irrefutably intertwined with miraculous events.
So ingrained in us is our awe of the miraculous that we have two major holidays that commemorate them – Hanukkah, and Purim. We recite the prayer Al Ha’nissim on both holidays, giving thanks to God for the privilege of having witnessed them. We say a special blessing expressing gratitude: “… to the Lord our God who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, at this season.”
There is a passage in the Tanakh that always made me pause as child:
“You have made man a little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honour,” Psalms: 8:5.
Long after I learned this passage, I regularly pondered what it truly meant. How could this be? Why are we considered just a little lower than the angels?
After all, angels, the renowned malakim, are among the most incredibly powerful beings ever depicted in any of the worldwide religious traditions. Angels are often described as benevolent celestial entities, traversing between the heavenly and earthly realms, messengers and emissaries that appear in countless stories and episodes in Abrahamic lore, acting as intermediaries between humanity and God himself.
My personal favourite is the story of the angel that is sent to “wrestle” with Jacob and test his resolve while on a journey back to his home in Canaan, a test we are taught that Jacob ultimately passes and thus gains the respect of God so much that we see the first recorded reference of the word Israel – Jacob is honoured for his endurance by being renamed Israel, loosely translated to “he who grapples with God.”
Essentially, to use the parlance of our modern age, angels are kind of a big deal.
Thus, I could not grasp during my studies as a child how could we possibly be just a little lower than the angels. How could it be that we human beings, imperfect, heavily flawed, prone to the basest of emotions such as jealousy, cruelty, pettiness and spite – how could we be anywhere close in hierarchy to these awe-inspiring supernatural beings?
The truth, I realized over the years, is that human beings are indeed imbued with the capacity for miracles – from the very moment we begin our existence. The first miracle happens when we are simply born, an event so improbable that scientists famously calculated the odds to be about 1 in 400 trillion.
We forget that the Hebrew word for miracle – nes – come from the root word nisayon, which means test. As human beings, we are constantly being tested, called upon to perform great feats of courage and resilience that may at first glance seem to far supersede our capabilities. In essence, we perform miracles every single day on this planet, feats that truly are almost worthy of being performed by angels themselves.
On holidays like Hanukkah and Purim, we rightfully seek to honour the big miraculous moments because of how perilous and tenuous our history as Jewish people has been – but it is important that we also take stock of how much we all as human beings have accomplished, and have potential yet to accomplish. We are collectively living a giant miracle, right now.
Every time a doctor saves a life, or a scientist has a new breakthrough, or an architect designs a more efficient building, or we release a new piece of software that saves people time on a daily basis so that they can spend more time with their loved ones – these are miracles, and we are miracle-makers.
Hanukkah and Purim commemorate jaw-dropping moments when ordinary people rose to the challenge of adversity, and achieved the extraordinary. As human beings, we sometimes forget that we all possess the capacity of angels, imbued from our very beginning with gifts of courage, endurance, resilience and faith.
Take for example the story of Purim. We forget that in the text, the name of God is not mentioned once. Instead, it is Esther and her uncle Mordechai who play central roles in saving the Jewish people from absolute calamity. Facing the spectre of genocide, they rise to the occasion and become almost angelic in their actions. They are early examples of my point – that when tested, human beings possess the capacity to emulate God and perform acts of gargantuan impact that would have before seemed impossible.
Though we gather every year on Hanukkah and Purim to seek inspiration from celebrating the joy of the miraculous, let us not forget how powerful we all are. Every single day, with every single improbable breath we take on this crazy rock in the universe called Earth, we are being tested – and every single day, we pass those tests and hurtle onward, performing miracle after miracle until we go to bed – hopeful that God gives a chance to wake up the next day, ready to undertake another series of seemingly improbable tests.