Hanukkah is once again upon us, and we are reminded of one of the most famous miracles in Jewish history, the story of the infamous battle of the Maccabees in their struggle to preserve the fabric and legacy of Judaism in the face of a Greek empire hellbent on total assimilation and eradication of the Jewish people. As the legend goes, there was only enough oil left to light the lamps for a single day, seemingly dooming the Maccabean revolt to failure — instead, the lamps stayed lit for eight days, allowing the small but resourceful band of Jewish rebels a seemingly impossible victory over the battle-hardened Greek soldiers.
What is a miracle?
Simply put, it is an event so unlikely to happen that it is previously deemed impossible — and then one day, what was previously thought impossible becomes the possible.
As Jews, having survived over three millennia against seemingly insurmountable odds, we have been given no choice but to believe in miracles. Whether it be moments of divine intervention, or the Herculean efforts of extraordinary leaders, the existence of the Jewish people is irrefutably intertwined with a series of events that on the face of them could only be described as miraculous.
So ingrained into the Jewish psyche is an awe of the miraculous that we have two major holidays that commemorate them — Hanukkah, and Purim. The prayer Al Ha’nissim is traditionally recited on both holidays, giving thanks to God for the privilege of having witnessed them. A special blessing is said, expressing gratitude: “… to the Lord our God who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, at this season.”
There is a peculiar passage in the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, that always made me pause when I encountered it as a child:
“You have made man a little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honor”
- King David, Psalms: 8:5
Long after I learned this passage, my thoughts would return to it, and I pondered what it truly meant. Why are we human beings considered just a little lower than the angels? How could this be?
When you think about it, angels are among the most incredibly powerful beings ever depicted in any of the worldwide religious traditions. Angels are often described as benevolent celestial entities, traversing between the heavenly and earthly realms in countless stories and episodes in Abrahamic lore, acting as intermediaries between humanity and God himself.
My personal favorite is the story of the angel that is sent to “wrestle” with Jacob and test his resolve while on a journey back to his home in Canaan, a test we are taught that Jacob ultimately passes and thus gains the respect of God so much that it is from this episode we glean the first recorded reference in history of the word Israel — Jacob is honored for his endurance by being renamed Israel, loosely translated to “he who grapples with G-d.”
Essentially, to use the parlance of our modern age, angels are kind of a big deal.
Thus, I could not grasp during my studies as a child how humans could possibly be considered just a little lower than angels. How could it be that we human beings, imperfect, heavily flawed, prone to the basest of emotions such as jealousy, cruelty, pettiness and spite — how could we be anywhere close in hierarchy to these awe-inspiring supernatural beings?
The truth, I realized over the years to come, is that human beings are indeed imbued with the capacity for miracle — from the very moment we begin our existence. The first miracle happens when we are simply born, an event so improbable that scientists famously calculated the odds to be about 1 in 400 trillion.
We forget that the Hebrew word for miracle — nes — come from the root word nisayon, which means test. As human beings, we are constantly being tested, called upon to perform great feats of courage and resilience that may at first glance seem to far supersede our capabilities. In essence, we perform miracles every single day on this planet, feats that arguably are almost worthy of being performed by angels themselves.
On holidays like Hanukkah and Purim, Jews set out to honor these seminal moments of miracle frankly because of our how perilous and tenuous our history has been — but it is important that we also take stock of how much we all as human beings have accomplished, and have potential yet to accomplish.
We are collectively living a giant miracle, right now.
Every time a doctor saves a life, or a scientist has a new breakthrough, or an architect designs a more efficient building, or a developer releases a new piece of software that saves people time on a daily basis — these are miracles, and we are miracle-makers. Hanukkah and Purim commemorate jaw-dropping moments when ordinary people rose to the challenge of adversity, and achieved the extraordinary. As human beings, we often forget that we all possess the capacity of angels, imbued from our very beginning with gifts of courage, endurance, resilience and faith.
Take for example the other big miracle story in Judaism, the story of Purim. What is notable in the text is that the name of God is never mentioned. Instead, it is two extraordinary human beings, Esther and her uncle Mordecai, who are called upon to play pivotal roles in saving the Jewish people from absolute calamity. Facing the spectre of genocide, they rise to the occasion and become almost angelic in their actions. They are early examples of my point — that when tested, human beings possess the capacity to emulate God and perform acts of gargantuan impact that would have hitherto seemed impossible.
Jews gather every year on Hanukkah and Purim to seek inspiration from celebrating the joy of the miraculous, but we should never forget the powerful potential of all human beings on this planet. Every single day, with every single improbable breath we take on this crazy rock in the universe called earth, we are being tested — and every single day, we pass those tests and hurtle onward, performing miracle after miracle until we go to bed — hopeful that God, or Allah, or Jehovah or Buddha or whatever higher power one puts faith in will give you the chance to wake up the next day, ready to undertake another series of seemingly impossible tests.