I offer this dvar Torah with gratitude to Rabbi Avi Strausberg who taught me this Torah.
A common Sefardic Hebrew name is Nissim, which means miracles. We knew this when we gave our younger child the middle name Niso, which is a diminutive of Nissim. He really is a delightful little miracle.
What we didn't know is that there would be a few other Nisos in the KT community. Which led my child to make up an entire fantasy basketball team called "Another Niso," where every player was named Niso. She would draw the players and narrate their games with endearing toddler pronunciations. "And then Another Niso shoots and scores...And the crowd goes wild!"
It has been a few years since this fantasy has been part of regular breakfast conversations. But I return to it every Hanukkah, when we sing Al HaNissim - and give thanks for the many miracles bestowed upon our ancestors in their days at this time.
Hanukkah is on the one hand a very humanist holiday. It is about creating light at the darkest time of year. It is a holiday about hope and resilience. The songs are mostly silly and accessible. Dreidel is arguably ritualized gambling.
But on the other hand, Hanukkah is a deeply religious holiday. It is about Divine salvation in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. It is about faith and miracles.
It is my sense that most of us don't quite know what to make of miracles. And we don't spend nearly enough time fantasizing about "another miracle."
Rabbi Avi Strausberg writes,
"The time of the Bible was a time brimming with miracles beyond human comprehension. Everywhere the Israelites looked, God's divine hand was discernible. In the Bible, Moses' rod miraculously transformed into a snake, the great Nile bled blood, rocks broke forth to bring water, and the sky brought down gifts of sustenance. This was a world in which, for better or worse, to our salvation or to our demise, great seas might part to save us, or the earth might open its mouth to swallow us whole. It was a world in which God’s clear and palpable presence could not be denied."
Despite my own desire to feel a sense of awe and connection to the natural world, this is not our world today.
Rabbi Strausberg continues,
"Rabbi Rabbi Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, known as the Meshekh Hokmah, writes that this transition from a world driven by miracles to a world where we hardly see them anymore occurred when the Israelites left behind their wandering... (comments on Deuteronomy 29:3). The Isrealites were no longer dependent on an external force, on Divinity itself, to survive. To make food fall from the sky and part the sea. We developed agency and an ability to sustain ourselves. This is a good thing. 'For the Meshekh Hokmah, this move from divine interventions to human enterprise marks a healthy and necessary stage in the development of the Jewish people’s relationship with God.'"
But despite this overall transformation, we are still reminded daily in our prayers and every year at Hanukkah (and Purim), that the world is full of miracles. That the good in our lives is in part because of human creativity, but also in part because of something beyond us, something miraculous.
In the words of the poet Walt Whitman,
"To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the
ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?"
This Hanukkah, may we have the courage to fantasize about "another niso," little miracles, everywhere and always. To "Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us." (Marge Piercy, "On our feet we speak to you").
Wherever you find yourself this week, shine bright!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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