In the introduction to his book, The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel wrote that “G-d created the world because He loves stories.”
The Jewish world gives a great deal of credence and value to stories. In chasidic lore, stories are a means of education, information, and connection. Stories allow the common Jew to connect with the saintly and to be transported into different times and places.
The Kotzker Rebbe wittily noted that one who believes all the stories he hears is a fool. But one who believes they cannot happen is a heretic.
The challenge of stories is that they must be understood properly. Stories are memorable and resonate, so it’s vital that their message should not be misunderstood.
In recent columns, I have included some powerful stories. An insightful reader wrote that the issue with these amazing stories is that “the number of failures exceeds the lucky ones.” Many people read such stories and wonder why these types of things never happen to them, and why, when they were in a difficult situation, there was no story-like intervention.
The reality is that most people do not experience such outlandish and borderline miraculous displays of divine manifestation. What’s more, even to those who have had such wondrous experiences, it was an anomaly. The majority of their lives is more mundane, as well.
So, is there no point of reading and relating all those wondrous stories? Should we not be promoting the unusual events and instead focus on the far more common natural and expected events of life?
If the answer is yes, then we have to question our celebration of Chanukah. Why celebrate a one-time miraculous event that no one alive today witnessed?
The Gemara (Shabbos 21b-22a) juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated statements:
“Rav Kahana said that Rav Nasan bar Minyomei explained in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: A Chanukah light placed higher than 20 amos is disqualified because one doesn’t see it.
“Rav Kahana said that Rav Nasan bar Minyomei explained in the name of Rav Tanchum: Why does it say, “The pit (that the brothers threw Yosef into) was empty, there was no water in it” (B’reishis 37:24)? This teaches us that there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.”
What is the connection between the pit Yosef was cast into and the height limit of Chanukah candles? Is it just that both statements were made by the same author?
The Gemara (Y’vamos 121a) says that if a person falls into a pit of lions, we can’t be certain he was killed. However, if he fell into a pit of snakes and scorpions, we can be sure he was killed. Snakes and scorpions are aggressive and will attack even if unprovoked.
The fact that Yosef fell into a pit filled with such venomous animals and yet emerged unscathed was an open miracle.
When he was pulled up from the pit, he had to endure a long and painful road, which included many difficult vicissitudes and tribulations. Aside from being abandoned by his family, he was imprisoned based on trumped up charges, where he languished for years. The open miracle he had witnessed undoubtedly served as a source of encouragement for him. He never forgot that G-d had shown him a personal act of love, which carried him through the most lonely and painful times.
At the time of the Chanukah miracle, there was a similar occurrence. Many people mistakenly think that after the miracle of Chanukah, the war with the Syrian-Greeks was over. Far from it.
The Chanukah miracle occurred during the third year of the war. After the faithful reconquered Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash, and they experienced the miracle of the oil burning for eight days, the war dragged on for more than five years. Successive Syrian-Greek emperors could not make peace with the fact that they had lost the Land of Israel. Some tried to reconquer it by force of arms, others by orchestrating internal strife and a coup among the Jews themselves.
At the time of the miracle, Matisyahu, the father of the Maccabees, and Yochanan, the oldest of the brothers, were dead. The year after the miracle, Yehudah HaMaccabee was killed in battle. Three years after the miracle, during a major battle in which the Syrian-Greeks tried to reconquer Eretz Yisrael, Eliezer was killed when an elephant he attacked and wounded fell and crushed him.
That being the case, the Chanukah miracle wasn’t the end of the story at all. In fact, it was more towards the beginning of the story. The miracle of the oil then served as an inspiration and encouragement to the battle-bound Maccabees to stay the course. The miracle gave them the assurance that Hashem recognized their heroic efforts and was proud of their heroic efforts.
That is the poignant connection between Yosef being thrown into the pit and the miracle of the Chanukah candles. Both occurrences included a miracle that inspired their subjects to maintain their faith during subsequent dark and difficult days.
Ramban (at the end of Parshas Bo) famously writes that the purpose of open miracles is to help us recognize the hidden miracles that happen all the time, and that whatever happens to a person is not just a result of nature.
This then is the purpose and value of the many incredible stories out there. It is not to convey to us that whenever we are in a challenging situation, we can be assured that our challenge will be reconciled in an incredible manner that will land our story in the next popular Jewish storybook. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of the time, we have to struggle unremarkably. But those stories remind us that G-d is the ultimate storyteller and can easily manipulate events and people to produce any outcome, no matter how impossible it seems.
If such occurrences happen in our lives, we surely need to treasure them and remind ourselves that just as in that situation G-d’s Hand was clearly orchestrating events, so does He do so in more hidden ways in every facet of our lives. But even when those events happen to others, we can be inspired to remember that same lesson of faith.
In 1967, the Jewish world experienced open miracles during the Six-Day War. During the months before the war, there was palpable fear and dread, less than 20 years after the end of the Holocaust. No one could have dreamed the supernatural victories that would be achieved in less than a week. The recapturing of the Har HaBayis and the Old City of Yerushalayim, Kever Rachel, and M’aras HaMachpeilah, and the routing of hostile surrounding enemy armies was previously unimaginable. Aside from generating a feeling of euphoria, there was a feeling of Jewish pride for the first time since before the Holocaust. There was a feeling that we truly belonged in Eretz Yisrael, and G-d was guiding our course.
The miracles of that war, and other incredible events, such as the Raid on Entebbe in 1976, need to continue to encourage us and embolden us even now, decades later. Through all the pain and anguish in our seemingly endless struggle to maintain our homeland, the open miracles we witnessed at those times demonstrate to us that we are under the direction of G-d.
All too soon, the beautiful lights of Chanukah flicker out. But their message can and must remain with us long after the holiday is over, and long after the last doughnuts and latkes have been consumed. It is the message that G-d is with us, even, or perhaps most profoundly, in the darkness.