Prayer, Miracles, and Chanuka

Nov 24, 2014
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Two Aspects of the Chanuka Miracle
Rav Shaya and Binyamin Karlinsky

The following D’var Torah is an English translation of the Drasha that was delivered by my son, Binyamin at his Bar Mitzvah, and for our siyum of Masechet Ta’anit. (Rav Shaya Karlinsky)

The Gemara in Ta’anit (2a) analyzes the verse from Kriyat Shma, “To love Hashem your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart” (Devarim 11:13) to teach us: What is service which is in the heart?

This is prayer.

The comparison between prayer and service (worship, “avodah”) is well known, based on a number of sources. The Maharal (opening of Netiv Ha’Avodah) asks how can prayer, in which man asks G-d for his own needs and requests, be called service and worship of G-d?

The Alter of Kelm asks an even more fundamental question on the nature of prayer. Man is supposed to serve G-d in every situation in which he finds himself. In fact, the more difficult his circumstances and the greater the obstacles he must overcome, the higher is the quality of his service and the greater is his reward. So how can asking G-d for improved circumstances, more money, better health, and greater success – how can that be considered service and worship of G-d? And since G-d, who is the essence of kindness and mercy, knows better than man what he needs and what is good for him, what value can there be in man asking G-d for things that either G-d will provide since man needs them, or shouldn’t provide since man does not need them?!

We are taught in Ta’anit (8a) that a person who prays that the grain in his storehouse be blessed with an increase after he has measured it, has made a vain prayer, for blessing befalls things only when they are hidden from view (not apparent to an observer). This principle is also stated in the Mishna at the beginning of the ninth chapter of Brachot (54a) that teaches that a person who prays for something which has already happened (yet he doesn’t know the outcome) has made a vain prayer.

The principle that we are being taught is that one is supposed to pray for things to happen in a natural way. Praying for miracles that don’t conform to the natural systems is prohibited. The story of Elazar ish Birtah, told in Ta’anit (24a) is a striking illustration of this principle. After Elazar ish Birtah gave most of the money he had saved for his daughter’s dowry to a pressing charity need, he purchased a small amount of wheat with the remaining money, which he threw into the grain storehouse. The wheat increased miraculously, making him a wealthy man. Yet he wouldn’t let his daughter take more wheat than she would have been entitled to as a normal recipient of charity. Rashi explains the reason, “Since it was the product of a miracle, and it is prohibited to have benefit from something produced miraculously.” (The fact that miraculous solutions are frowned upon is also demonstrated quite dramatically in the Gemara (Shabbat 53b), which tells the story of a newly widowed man who couldn’t afford a wet nurse for his infant, and miraculously grew female breasts to nurse the infant.)

Why is it so important for the world to operate within a system of natural laws? Why must our prayers seek solutions to our problems specifically within the natural system?

The Alter of Kelm offers the following explanation. G-d created and runs the world within a system of nature, creating the impression that everything runs on its own, with no intervention on His part. The challenge of man, the main “work” he has to do in the area of his belief system, is to understand and integrate the reality that the world is run by G-d, with His ongoing supervision and interaction. In a world that operates within consistent laws of nature, it is difficult for man to feel that he is in the hands of G-d. Prayer is the vehicle by which he concretizes in his mind and in his heart that all his needs are provided to him by G-d, with personal attention and direct intervention. What man asks from G-d in his prayers enables him to internalize that all that comes to him through the natural system is really being provided by G-d. This is the purpose of prayer, and in fact it is how man serves and worships G-d in the area of his fundamental belief system. The word for service and worship, “avodah” also indicates that this is hard work, going against the inertia created by a casual and causal view of the world through the eyes of nature.

Miracles contradict the entire purpose of prayer, which is to help man realize G-d’s control and intervention in the natural system. When a supernatural miracle happens, it is clear that G-d has brought it about, and G-d’s intervention is clear. There is no need to pray for such an occurrence. In fact, prayer for a miracle would raise all of the problems about prayer that we had discussed above. Since G-d has brought man to the situation he is in, what right or reason should man have to ask G-d to change it? G-d will certainly do what He deems in man’s best interests. We pray to G-d for rain when it is not brought, we pray to Him to heal an illness or provide more money, only to concretize within our hearts and minds that he controls nature, and that “natural” occurrences are really in his hands on a very direct basis. But what role would there be for prayer which asks for a miracle, in which there is no question that G-d is in control of the system and intervenes in it? This has to be left for G-d to choose if He wishes to intervene in a way that leaves little choice but to recognize that intervention.

The real difference, then, between miracles and nature is that the former is obviously the hand of G-d, while the latter is His hidden hand, with man required to recognize G-d’s control and intervention when it is not obvious.

An analysis of the way Chazal structured Chanukah, along with the conflict with the Greeks, will help us understand this distinction more clearly.

There is a famous question of the Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 670). Since there was enough oil to burn for one day, how come Chazal made Chanukah for eight days. There was a miracle for no more than seven days!

Among the decrees the Greeks forced upon the Jews, there was one that was most strange. “Write upon the horn of an ox: You have no part in the G-d of Israel” (Breishit Rabba 2:5). With this decree, the Greeks acknowledged the existence of G-d, and in fact, His being the G-d of Israel! So what were they trying to accomplish? Forcing the Jews to write that they had a “part” in Him was really the declaration that he isn’t involved in attending to our needs, that the systems of nature operate on their own within the material world, and that what happens in this world is disconnected from the upper, spiritual worlds. This decree reflected the fundamental point of conflict between the Greeks and the Jews. Greece glorified the supremacy of nature, the power of the physical, the value of externals. For the Greek, G-d has no interest or ability in acting within the world’s natural systems, while man has no responsibility to act against his own natural systems of drives and inclinations, with his instincts and physical drives governing his behavior. The Jew stood for the reality that G-d controls nature. And it is man’s responsibility to control his own natural drives and instincts. Beyond the visible world, there is a hidden, inner world. Man’s development of this spiritual dimension enables him to connect with the higher-level world of the Divine. The natural world in which we reside is simply a vehicle through which G-d can reveal his intervention and control, if man but chooses to recognize it.

There were two miracles on Chanukah: The oil that burned for eight days, instead of one day, and the miraculous victory of the few Jews over the many Greeks, the weak Jews over the strong Greeks. The first miracle was supernatural. The second, no less great, was done within the confines and illusion of the natural system. Why was it necessary for G-d to perform the supernatural miracle of the oil, when He had available other, more natural solutions to the problem? Specifically at that time, in the context of the battle with Greek ideology, G-d wanted to demonstrate, unequivocally, that He interacts with the world, controls nature, and guides events based on the moral and spiritual behavior of man. The overt miracle, changing nature, comes to show that G-d is also the ongoing source for the functioning of the natural system. One of the reasons that Chazal established Chanukah for eight days, despite the oil burning miraculously for only seven, was to teach the inseparable link between G-d’s intervention when the Jews are saved through miracles and their being saved through apparently natural means. Winning a war, or oil that burns for one day, should be viewed as no less Divine control of the world than oil which burns miraculously for seven extra days. A daily challenge for the Jew is to see G-d’s intervention and guidance in the daily events of nature, and to internalize the conviction that every occurrence in our lives, whether on a personal level or on a national level, is directed by G-d’s control of the natural systems.

Prayer comes to strengthen that conviction. Truly service of G-d is in our hearts. May G-d answer our prayers, both for our daily needs, as well as to alleviate the difficult situation in which the Jewish people now finds itself.

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