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Natural is Supernatural, Naturally

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Baruch Beyer

Miracles don't happen anymore, do they?

Did you ever get into a situation where you could have used a miracle or two? Imagine that you've just been pulled over for doing 65 in a 35 mile an hour zone. As the cop saunters over he is struck with sudden amnesia. You roll the window down and ask in your most innocent voice, "Hello, officer. Is there anything wrong?"

He replies, "Uhhh... I don't think so. I guess I just wanted to wish you a good day." Wouldn't that be great?! Or imagine you receive a note from your credit card company saying that your $10,000 balance is all forgiven as part of their new customer appreciation policy.

I can hear you saying, "Yeah, right. A miracle once in awhile would be nice, but – get real – miracles don't happen anymore, do they?"

Chanukah is all about miracles and the people who merited them. Why is it that our experience with miracles is only in a historical sense? Why aren't there lead stories on CNN about the latest miracle?

The short answer is that only the super-righteous merit to have miracles performed for them. (Oh well, we don't make the cut to play in that league.) This is all true. The main heroes of the Chanukah story were of course great and righteous individuals. But there were other great and righteous people living at that time, and they did not merit miracles.

You could even argue that there have been "miracle grade" individuals throughout history who did not merit direct divine miraculous assistance. So perhaps when applying for a miracle "grant," there must be something more you need to have on your proposal than "great and righteous."

Frequency of Occurrence

Rabbi Chaim Freidlander provides insight into the granting of miracles in his classic work, Sifsei Chaim. He begins with a discussion of the famous Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, an individual portrayed many times in the Talmud as a "miracle worker."

In one such episode, the Talmud tells of Rabbi Chanina finding his daughter depressed on Friday evening after she had lit the Shabbat candles. She explained that while filling the lantern in preparation for lighting, she accidentally picked up the jug of vinegar instead of the oil. Rabbi Chanina responded, "Don't worry, the One who told the oil to light, will tell the vinegar to light as well." The story continues that these vinegar lights burned for the entire Shabbat.

A person should never place himself in a dangerous situation and rely on a miracle.

Neat story in many regards. Vinegar burning like oil – an open miracle! There is an important question however, that begs an answer. Jewish philosophy has a general rule of "not relying on miracles to occur." As the Talmud explains, a person should never place himself in a dangerous situation (bungee jumping comes to mind, or perhaps negotiating an LA freeway) and say, "I'm not worried, God will save me miraculously."

Why not? Because God may not ride in to your rescue! And even if you do merit Divine intervention, you will still have to foot the bill by "paying" for your miracle – by having merits deducted from your account at the "In God We Trust" celestial credit union.

So how did Rabbi Chanina perform his vinegar oil trick so nonchalantly?

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains that a person who relies on a miracle, and makes use of the miracle that is done for him, is demonstrating that he feels worthy of Divine favor, that he has "it coming to me." That's why his account is debited. He has sinned in the arrogance department and he loses ground as a result.

Rabbi Chanina on the other hand, lived on an altogether different plane of existence. He truly believed that the same God who gives oil its innate characteristics of flammability, can and will instill the same properties in vinegar. In his eyes, "nature" and miracle are one in the same, both activated only through the express will of God. The entire difference between what we call "natural" and "supernatural" is that nature is a continual expression of God's will, whereas a miracle is an expression beyond the everyday. It's just a matter of frequency of occurrence!

To someone who lives with this reality, breathing, sight, trees and flowers, steak and pizza, and vinegar that burns like oil, are all equal expressions of God's will in our world.

Daily Miracles

Matitiyahu and his sons rebelled against the powerful Syrian-Greeks and put themselves in danger. They risked everything for an ideal. Great and righteous as they were, how could they call upon God to save them with miracles? Because they too looked at life through the eyes of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa; they too knew that the supernatural is only natural. They marched into battle against the world superpower with the certainty that God's will would be done, even if that meant that miracles would be called upon.

Something more to ponder: The Talmud states that if someone dreams about the names Chananyah, Chanina or Yochanan, that he will have miracles done for him. The Maharsha explains that these names all share the same root word, Chein, meaning graciousness and a freely given gift. What is the connection between a graciously freely given gift and miracles?

The Amidah includes a prayer thanking God for the many "daily miracles."

The Sifsei Chaim explains: When a person understands that what he has in life is not his due, either through his actions, good deeds or merits, but is solely a gift of the grace of God, and recognizes that everything is an expression of "His" will, then God acts with him in a similar vein and rewards him with miracles.

The central Jewish prayer, the Amidah, includes a prayer thanking God for the "daily miracles He performs for us." What daily miracles? Has he split any rivers for you lately?

No, but he has given all of us life and abilities that we have only begun to appreciate and utilize.

As we light our menorahs this Chanukah, let us remember the lesson of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa: The same God who tells this oil to burn, can tell vinegar to burn as well. For indeed, every breath is a miracle.

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