What is a miracle?


“Blessed is the One who did miracles for our ancestors in those days and in our times.” (Hanukah prayer)
We often use the word “miracle” when something unlikely–or even seemingly impossible–actually comes to pass.  But in Jewish teachings, just being unlikely is not enough to qualify an event as a miracle.  To be a miracle, an unlikely event must also advance a divine purpose in our world, such as healing, justice, or freedom.  In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, what makes the parting of the Reed Sea a miracle is that it allows the Israelites to escape from slavery and live as free people; without that, it would just be a rare event, not a miracle.  This explains why even among the ancients there was controversy over what the “miracle” of Hanukah was.  Was it the victory of a small band of Jewish fighters over the vast Syrian Greek army, recorded in the Book of Maccabees?  That did lead to a degree of freedom for the Israelites, but it also resulted in death and carnage, as well as some degree of oppression as succeeding Hasmonean rulers became increasingly corrupt.  Seeing the ambiguous moral valence of military victory, the ancient rabbis excluded the Book of Maccabees from the Hebrew Bible and chose to concentrate on a different unlikely event, the story of the little jar of oil that lasted 8 nights, as the “miracle” of Hanukah.  They argued that this was a miracle because it restored Jewish faith in the triumph of divine light over darkness and inspired dedication (the meaning of the word Hanukah in Hebrew) in the hearts of Jews to the highest values of our tradition that has lasted until this day.  Just like the ancients, we may disagree about what qualifies as a miracle, but Hanukah prompts us to think deeply about what events in our time both defy the odds AND advance a divine purpose in the world.  As we come to the end of the holiday, may we open our eyes to potential miracles in the world around us, and may we re-dedicate ourselves to being part of making miracles happen in our time.