Popular children’s literature is a great way to get a sense of where society is at about certain issues. For example, in two mainstream children’s books about Hanukkah, a “miracle” is described as “something amazing that makes you glad you are alive” and “something wonderful that happens that you didn’t think was possible.” What both of these descriptions point to is a preference for a naturalistic understanding of miracles and a discomfort with invoking the supernatural. It turns out that this trend has a long history in Jewish thought. Going back as far as the fifth century, we find in the Talmud that some sages understood miracles simply as an unexpected bringing together of natural elements, and thus they completely minimized any supernatural element to miracles. Other sages, however, insisted that the supernatural element is a main feature of miracles (see the debate of Rav and Shmuel in B. Talmud, Sotah 47a).
But why is there a desire to minimize the supernatural component of miracle stories? Does it still allow us to feel the inspiration that supernatural understandings do? One response comes from a classic commentary on the prophetic book of Ezekiel. In chapter 37, we find the prophet Ezekiel being told to pick up two sticks and hold them together in his hand. He is then told to bring them close to him. Upon doing so, the sticks are miraculously made one. Numerous commentators ask a version of the following question, “If God was going to perform the miracle of turning two sticks into one, why have Ezekiel pick them up, put them together, and bring them close to him? Why didn’t God just do it all?” The answer from the medieval Portuguese commentator, Rabbi Yosef Hayyun, is: “it is God’s way to minimize the supernatural aspects of miracles.” Here Rabbi Hayyun is echoing a strong tradition among medieval Sephardic rabbis, including such great figures as Maimonides and Nahmanides. These rabbis had a project of affirming the miraculous, nature-breaking ability of God while downplaying both its centrality and reliance upon it for solutions. Rabbi Hayyun, however, adds another layer explaining why he thinks God operates this way, and it is here that we encounter another important insight. Let’s analyze.
Discussing an earlier verse in the same chapter of Ezekiel, Rabbi Hayyun reminds readers that God is as much the source of the natural as the supernatural. Invoking ideas from Jewish mysticism, he articulates that nature is a function of the aspect of God we encounter through the name “E-lohim” and the supernatural is a function of the aspect of God we encounter through the name “A-donai”. Thus, God utilizes the natural as much as possible and limits the supernatural in order to remind us of a critical lesson, that both have their root in the Divine. The more obvious presence of God in a little bit of the supernatural should sensitize us the Godliness of the commonplace “natural” moments that are happening all of the time.
Hanukkah is on its way, and as we are reading those great kids’ books about the holiday, let’s allow their lesson, along with that Rabbi Hayyun, to really sink in. By being open to the unexpected wonders of being alive, we will always be able to experience the miraculous, and if not that, then at least the marvelous, at Hanukkah time and everyday of the year.