MMY's Hashkafa

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By, Mrs Sharon Issacson, Current MMY Assistant Director

On Chanukah, we commemorate two separate miracles – the nes pach hashemen and the military victory against the Greeks. What is the relationship between these two miracles? Why was the miracle of oil necessary, and why did it become the symbol of Chanukah?

Many reference a well-known Ramban (Shemot 13:16) in answering these questions. In this passage, Ramban speaks about the purpose of open miracles, such as those performed during Yetziyat Mizrayim, as testifying to God’s creation of the world ex nihilo, His omniscience, and Divine Providence. However, "because HaKadosh Baruch Hu will not perform overt miracles in every generation to (convince) the wicked and the deniers, He commanded us to make a constant recollection of what our eyes saw, and to transmit the matter to our children, and from their children to their children, until the final generation." At the same time, Ramban states that we recall and remember the open miracles to point us to all of the hidden miracles which occur constantly in the world. A fundamental principle of Jewish belief is that "from the great miracles, a person comes to admit to the hidden miracles that are the foundation of the entire Torah. For no one has a portion in the Torah of Moshe until he believes that all of our events are miracles, and they are not all a product of nature."

The magnificent open miracles serve as window into God’s conduct in the world, proclaiming and confirming the miraculous status of the smaller, "natural" miracles and wonders. Such a relationship is certainly apparent in the dual miracles of Chanukah. Chanukah celebrates both the "natural" military victory and the "supernatural" burning of a small amount of oil for 8 days. The unquestionably supernatural burning of the oil verified the equally miraculous nature of the military victory. Our agenda on Chanukah is to look deeply at our own lives and to perceive and appreciate the undeniable yad Hashem in each and every aspect of our lives, even in events that appear to be “natural.”

The problem arises when we look past this passage of Ramban, at other passages in which he seems to maintain a diametrically opposed view – contradicting his own opinion.  On Bereishit 18:19, Ramban writes that “[ordinary] humans are left to the influence of chance… However, with His pious ones, [God] concentrates to know him on an individual level, to have His guard cling to him constantly. [God] does not remove his knowledge and consciousness of him at all.” In his commentary on Iyov 36:7, Ramban states that “to the extent that the completely pious individual, who is constantly clinging to Him and never disrupts his total devotion to Him for mundane matters, [he] will be guarded always from all chance occurrences, even the happenings of nature… miracles will constantly occur on his behalf. According to his closeness to God, he will be protected with the highest level of protection. However, he who is distant from God in thought and deed, even if he isn’t deserving of death due to his sins… is left to chance… And since most of the world is in this middle group…. it is proper for them to act in the way of nature and chance.”

How can we reconcile Ramban’s naturalistic statements in his commentary on Breishit and Iyov with the occasionalist proclamations in Parshat Bo and elsewhere?

In truth, Ramban’s position on miracles is nuanced and complex, somehow incorporating both of his divergent statements. Dr. David Berger points out that Ramban’s occasionalist statements always occur in the context of a discussion of reward and punishment. Namely, all things that happen to us in the realm of reward and punishment are miracles. That does not preclude nature taking its course in other circumstances outside of the realm of reward and punishment. Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz clarifies that “the influence of chance,” or Nature, is also a form of specific Divine Providence. God as creator and maintainer of nature makes a specific decision each moment whether or not to intervene with a hidden or open miracle. Not intervening is also specific Divine Providence.

According to Ramban then, the world functions in a fundamentally naturalistic way. However, at the same time God supervises this system of nature, and he manipulates the natural order for the purpose of reward and punishment. And those who live their lives in dveikut with Hashem may enjoy more specific divine Providence, even in the form of outright miracles.

How may we adapt this more nuanced picture of Ramban’s outlook on nature and miracle to the message of Chanukah? What religious meaning is found in the view that indeed, nature and miracle are different, and God’s providence is scaled – not equal at every moment of every person’s life?

What we have here is a system in which divine providence is not something that everyone equally GETS, but rather something that a person needs to EARN. The providence that we get is dependent on how much we strive to draw close to God. In Halachkhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik summarizes the spiritual significance of this approach:

“The fundamental of providence is here transformed into a concrete commandment, an obligation incumbent upon man. Man is obliged to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of the individual providence that watches over him. Everything is dependent on him; it is all in his hands. When a person creates himself, ceases to be a mere species man, and becomes a man of God, then he has fulfilled that commandment which is implicit in the principle of providence.

Perhaps then, the dual miracles of Chanukah can motivate us to reflect on God’s mastery of the world and on the different types of hashgacha that He provides. The nes pach hashemen in particular also stimulates our will to draw closer and closer to Hashem, so that He will respond by bestowing us with more direct and intimate hashgacha in our lives.  

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