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Miracle on Ice - Chanukah Edition

November 23, 2010 | by Yechezkel Freundlich

The Jewish definition of “miraculous” is different from Merriam-Webster.

The rather presumptuous title on the DVD case caught my attention: MIRACLE – The True Story Behind the Greatest Moment in Sports History

The photo of an astonished yet ecstatic and triumphant hockey player – with a large USA across his chest – indicated that the "miracle" in question was none other than the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" at the Olympic Games in Lake Placid, NY. In the midst of the Cold War, the world watched in disbelief as a motley crew of Americans players defeated the indomitable and heretofore invincible Soviet National Team.

It was the classic David versus Goliath battle.

It is hard to describe just how unlikely this victory was. Team USA, playing together for all of six months, was an assembly of collegiate and amateur players. Their Soviet counterparts, on the other hand, were well-trained, seasoned professionals. If there ever was a David versus Goliath battle, this was it. The Soviet hockey team had won every Olympic Gold since 1964, going 27-1-1 during that time, while outscoring their opponents by a combined 175-44. In the 1980 opening rounds of Olympic play in Lake Placid, the Russians went 5-0, extending their winning streak to 21 games.

The Americans were not even given a chance. Despite making it to the medal round as one of the top four teams, their semi-final game was considered over before it even began. In fact, New York Times columnist Dave Anderson wrote that "unless the ice melts," the Russians were absolutely guaranteed another gold medal.

Unless, of course, you believe in miracles.

The American team defied all odds and beat the unbeatable Soviets 4-3. In a timeless moment of sports broadcasting history, Al Michaels' words became etched into Americans’ hearts: "Five seconds left... Do you believe in miracles? YES!!"

Related Article:'s Chanukah Reader

Handling the Finns

One significant detail of this story is often forgotten. The game against the Russians was not the gold medal game. In 1980, the Olympic medal was a round-robin tournament, and the victory over the Soviets actually earned the American team, on its own, nothing. Depending on the outcome of their next game against Finland, it was still possible for the Americans to place anywhere from first to fourth, even after having defeated Russia.

Against Finland, the USA fell behind 2-1 after two periods, but stormed back in the final period and took the gold with a 4-2 victory. This game against the Finns, while critical (can you imagine if they had not won gold after beating the Russians!), is nowhere near as historically dramatic. There are no books or movies written about it. It will never place in the top 500 moments in sports history. And the term "miracle" will never be associated with this final game against Finland.

The reason, of course, is obvious. The Soviets were invincible. They were, on paper, the best hockey team in the world. The Finns, on the other hand, were mere mortals. A good hockey team, yes, but not insurmountable (they ended up placing fourth).

Here’s the definition of "miracle" in Merriam-Webster's dictionary:

    An extraordinary occurrence that surpasses all known human powers and natural forces, and is ascribed to a divine or supernatural cause, especially to God.

The victory over the Soviets was miraculous, extraordinary, impossible. It seemed to surpass all known human and natural forces. But the victory over the Finns was... eh, ordinary. No need for the divine or supernatural – just some tough defense, consistent play, and business will take care of itself. It may have taken a miracle to get past the Russians, but the USA squad was quite capable of handling the Finns "all on their own."

The Strong Against the Weak

The Jewish war against the Greeks during the Chanukah story is set in an eerily similar milieu. The Greek army was well trained, highly skilled, and fully armed with the most advanced weaponry. They were invincible. The small bands of Jewish fighters were made up of farmers and scholars. They had no organized army, little training, few weapons, and absolutely no chance at victory. The battle was over before it even started.

Unless, of course, you believe in miracles.

Against all odds, the Jews emerged victorious. They won the war, recaptured the Holy Temple, and lit the Menorah. As we say in the special Chanukah prayer, Al Hanisim, “The strong were delivered into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.”

The events of the war were true to Webster's definition of "miraculous." It was extraordinary, surpassing all known human powers and natural forces. It could only be ascribed to the Divine.

The same can be said regarding the miracle of the oil. A single day's worth of oil extraordinarily burned for eight days. It, too, was beyond all known natural forces.

Indeed, Chanukah is a time of miracles.

And then we run up against the Finns.

The candles have burned out. The latkes have been consumed. The wrapping paper has been thrown away. The miraculous events of Chanukah are over. We return to our ordinary day-to-day lives. We earn a living. We drive our kids to school. We exercise and eat right. With some hard work and persistent efforts, everything should fall into place. Nothing miraculous here.

Except that the Torah’s definition of “miraculous” is different than Merriam-Webster.

Nachmanides, the great 12th century sage, writes:

    Through recalling and acknowledging the great manifest and revealed miracles, a person ultimately acknowledges the hidden miracles of everyday life. For a person [must] believe that all of our affairs and experiences are miracles, that there is no element of nature and "ordinary events" in life at all.

According to Nachmanides, the Almighty uses open and revealed miracles to teach us a lesson. Lest we get confused by everyday, ordinary occurrences, He occasionally changes the normal functioning of the world to remind us that the same Omnipotent Creator Who performs "miracles" also runs our everyday lives and controls its every function. However, the everyday occurrences are no less miraculous, and no less driven and controlled by God's hand. We are just more used to them.

Everyday occurrences are no less miraculous, we're just more used to them.

Take a simple example. We consume lunch. An intricate digestive system takes over, capturing the nutrients our body needs, while expelling what it does not. It's a magnificent process, one we rarely stop to think about (unless we have a problem). Its wonder is lost on us, not only because it is entirely ordinary, but also because it's so well understood and documented. Who needs God to explain peristalsis?

The Jewish perspective is that despite Webster's definition, digestion is truly miraculous. (Thus the blessing of thanks one recites upon having used the restroom.) It's just a miracle "within" the laws of nature.

This Chanukah, each night as the candles flicker and dance, reflect on one "everyday miracle" that exists in your life. It can be health, job, home, family. Take a moment to appreciate our everyday miracles, and thank God.

For after all, there really is no difference between the Russians and the Finns.


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