Dr. David Berger on the Chanukah miracle:
Human Initiative and Divine Providence: A Hanukkah Sermon
Parshat Miketz, which is regularly read on Hanukkah, begins with a reference to a two year delay between Joseph’s request that the butler mention him to Pharaoh and the dreams that finally led to the activation of that request. We are told that the reason for the delay was Joseph’s reliance on human intercession rather than providential intervention, in other words, his lack of bittahon. Because he used the verb zakhor twice in his request (ki im zekhartani…ve-hizkartani), he was punished by two additional years of incarceration. The butler did not remember him—and forgot him.
Click here to read moreThe disturbing character of this assertion was brought home to me with special force when I heard a dvar Torah built upon it. The speaker told a story of a European rabbi who was paid such a meager salary by his community that his wife and children were virtually without food and clothing. Despite his wife’s increasingly desperate importuning, he refused to ask for an increase in salary because this would bespeak a lack of bittahon. Finally, however, he relented, and the communal leaders agreed to his request. Upon his return home, however, he was tormented by feelings of guilt, and so he prayed to God that his employers forget the conversation. In his mercy, God acceded to the request of this great tzaddik, leaving him and his family as destitute as they were at the outset.
I was so agitated by this supposedly inspiring tale that I said to the person next to me that the religion described in the story is not mine. Still, I had to deal with the rabbinic comment about Joseph, and I told myself that the rules for a man whose very epithet is ha-tzaddik and who had been granted prophetic dreams are not the same as those for ordinary people. Still, the Sages clearly intended to teach us something by this observation, and I felt considerably better when I heard a comment about it in the name of a major rabbi (R. Chaim of Brisk, if my memory does not mislead me). The rabbi is said to have asked how many years Joseph’s liberty would have been delayed had he used the verb zakhor only once in his request for help. When the expected reply—one year—was forthcoming, he responded that this was a mistake. A request using that word once, he explained, was precisely what God wanted, and it would have produced immediate results. Human effort is a necessity, but it must be exercised in a fashion that does not indicate exclusive reliance on other people and an absence of trust in God.
This is no doubt the meaning of Jeremiah’s admonition, “Cursed is he who trusts in man, who makes mere flesh his strength, and turns his thoughts from the Lord” (17:5). The author of the Sefer Nizzahon Yashan argued that because everyone puts his trust in a prince or comparable figure, the verse must be a warning against trusting a human being as a deity, an interpretation allegedly verified by the end of the verse. While this is an acute point in the context of an anti-Christian polemic, the plain meaning is surely a warning against trusting a man so thoroughly that one turns away from God.
A key theme of both holidays originating after the time of the humash is the balance between human initiative and divine intervention in the salvation of Israel. Purim is the quintessentially naturalistic salvation, accomplished without overt miracles and recorded in a book omitting the name of God. A celebrated gemara says that because God coerced the Israelites into receiving the Torah by threatening to crush them beneath the mountain, the covenant was not fully binding until they agreed to its terms once again during the time of Mordecai and Esther. A particularly attractive interpretation of this gemara explains that the coercion in the first covenant, figuratively described by the metaphor of the mountain, refers to the impact of repeated, overt miracles experienced in Egypt, on the sea, and in the desert. After such experiences, the Israelites had no psychological choice but to accept. The miracle of Purim, however, which could have been attributed to naturalistic developments associated with the efforts of Mordecai and Esther, challenged an uncoerced Jewish people to recognize the hand of God. Since their efforts in this matter had always been predicated on divine aid—they fasted in the wake of Mordecai’s reminder to Esther that she had been put in her position for this purpose--they readily recognized God’s presence and accepted the covenant once again.
On Hanukkah, the tension and harmony between effort and providence are no less clear, even classic. There is the war, and there is the oil. Gedaliah Alon, in a classic article, provided arguments against the widespread view that Hazal intentionally obscured the memory of the Hasmoneans, but there is no question that throughout post-Second Temple Jewish history the oil predominated. Jews in exile did not fight wars, which were the domain of Esau, and the central ritual of the holiday commemorated the overt act of God rather than that of men.
And then came Zionism, which turned the matter on its head. The Zionist bias in favor of human heroism was reinforced by the thoroughly secular, even anti-religious orientation of the movement’s dominant elements. This approach, to which I shall return, was further buttressed by arguments against the historicity of the miracle of the oil already raised in the nineteenth century. Both I Maccabees and II Maccabees, our earliest accounts of the Hasmonean revolt, say nothing of the cruse of oil, an omission that appears inexplicable if the miracle actually occurred.
This question has disturbed many religious Jews. In 1969, a student at Yeshiva University asked me whether the miracle was attested outside of the famous Talmudic account, and I replied that it was not. At the time, I did not have a satisfying explanation for this, and one individual took my response as a denial that the miracle occurred. This was not my intention, but this episode along with questions over the years from other Jews perplexed by the problem led me to struggle with it more than might otherwise have been the case. I now believe that I can propose an explanation that is absolutely convincing with respect to I Maccabees and reasonably satisfying with respect to II Maccabees.
1. A perusal of II Maccabees demonstrates that miracle stories regarding the Hasmonean revolt and the Temple circulated widely. It is virtually beyond question that the author of I Maccabees heard such accounts, and yet he records none at all. This means either that he did not believe them or that he excluded them as a matter of policy. In either case, the absence of a reference to the cruse of oil--which is troubling only because of the inference that the author never heard the story--poses no challenge to one who believes the account of the miracle on the authority of Hazal. Given the author's consistent historiographic approach, we can be almost certain that he would not have recorded this miracle even if he knew about it.
2. In the case of II Maccabees, the argument proceeds not from the absence of miracles but from their prominence. Here the author presents various miracle stories so public and so impressive (including, for example, the public appearance of angels) that the miracle of the cruse of oil, which was witnessed by relatively few observers, pales into near insignificance, and he may well have chosen to omit it along with other "minor" miracles. II Maccabees is an abridgment of a five-part work by Jason of Cyrene which has been lost. The full work almost certainly contained miracle stories that were omitted from the abridgment. To us, the story of the oil looms very large. To Jason--or to the man who abridged his work--it may have seemed trivial, particularly since he had an alternate explanation for the decision to celebrate for eight days.
In sum, there are plausible grounds to argue that the authors of both I and II Maccabees could have known the story and nonetheless omitted it from their histories. The absence of a reference in Al ha-Nissim, which is a thanksgiving prayer, need not trouble anyone. The miracle of victory requires thanksgiving; the miracle of the oil does not, and it is appropriately omitted.
Setting aside the historiographical challenge, the deeper ideological issue was the appeal to Hanukkah and the Maccabees by secular Zionists to express disdain for the miraculous and glorify unaided human initiative. A striking, though not anti-religious, invocation of the Hasmonean heroes as a contrast to the pusillanimous Jew of the exile appears in Bialik’s remarkable poem Be-Ir ha-Haregah, where he describes the cowering grandchildren of the Maccabees hiding in their holes as their wives and daughters are raped by pogromists. In his Metei Midbar, without reference to the Maccabees, Bialik specifically celebrated the defiant effort to conquer Israel whether God approved or not; if God does not want us to go, say his heroes, “then let us go up without him” (na’al na efo bil’adav). Modern Orthodox Jews, including myself ba-avonotay, continue to sing Mi Yemallel, a Hanukkah song that is in its very essence an anti-religious composition and cannot be entirely purged of its ideology by one or two emendations sometimes inserted in Orthodox circles. Thus, “Who can recount the valiant deeds of Israel?” instead of the deeds of God mentioned in the original verse. “In every generation there arises the hero who is the redeemer of Israel [goel ha-am]…. [Judah] Maccabee saves and redeems [moshia u-fodeh], and in our days all the people of Israel will unite, arise and be redeemed,” clearly on their own. Most explicitly, there is the later Hanukkah song declaring, “We experienced no miracle; we found no cruse of oil.”
Religious non-Zionists reacted to all this with a vigorous rejection of the entire movement as a rebellion against God. For them, the land of Israel would one day be returned to us through divine intervention alone. But religious Zionists would not be deterred by the exiling of God on the part of the movement’s mainstream. Driven by the conviction, rooted in the fundamental approach of the Torah in numerous contexts, that divine providence and human initiative are properly conjoined, they embraced the opportunity to act without sacrificing the everpresent consciousness of God’s hand. An awakening below would arouse an awakening above. In this ideological environment, Hanukkah can serve as an inspiration not by excising one of its two major components but by celebrating it in its fullness: the war and the oil, action and faith, human effort and the guiding presence of God.
 “Ha-hishkihah ha-ummah va-hakhameha et ha-Hashmonaim?” Mehqarim be-Toledot Yisrael I (Tel Aviv, 1957), pp. 15-25.