Dear Jew in the City,
What did the Jewish people do in the time of Chanukah to merit miracles and what can we do now to merit miracles in our day?
Thanks for your question, though I want to reframe it before I answer: don’t plan for miracles. We have a general concept that we don’t rely on miracles occurring (Kiddushin 39b). I think a better question would be what the Jews did in the time of Chanukah to merit salvation and what we can do to merit salvation in our day. (Whether that salvation is miraculous in nature or not would be up to God.)
The answer is simple: do the right thing. (“The right thing” means “what the Torah says.” I’ve seen people perform some amazing mental gymnastics to make the Torah seem to say the opposite of what it actually says. But, to quote the rabbi who lives in Elaine’s building on Seinfeld, “That is a sermon for another day.”)
The source for this conclusion can be found in Deuteronomy 28. There, it addresses many different types of reward for observing the mitzvos, as well as many different consequences for non-compliance. Since you asked about Chanukah, which was a military victory, and I assume that “our day” refers to the current war in Gaza, I will focus on the verses addressing the military ramifications of mitzvah observance/non-observance.
(1) It will be, if you listen faithfully to the voice of Hashem your God, to observe all His commandments that I command you today, that Hashem your God will place you high above all the nations of the earth. (2) All these blessings will come upon you and take effect if you heed the voice of Hashem your God. … (7) Hashem will give you your enemies who rise against you, defeated before you; they will march out against you on one road and flee from you on seven roads. … (13) Hashem will place you as the head and not as the tail; you will only be above and you will not be below if you listen to the commandments of Hashem your God that I command you today to observe and to perform.
(15) If you do not obey Hashem your God to observe all the commandments and laws that I command you today, all these curses will come upon you and take effect. … (25) Hashem will give you defeated before your enemies; you will march out against them on one road and flee before them on seven roads, and you will be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
Of course not every redemption is necessarily because we’re doing all the right things. Sometimes we’re not doing all the things we should but Hashem chooses to give us salvation anyway. For example, see Ezekiel chapter 20. There (verses 7-9), discussing the Exodus from Egypt, the prophet Yechezkel quotes God as saying:
“I (God) said to them (the Jews): Let everyone throw away the detestable things of his eyes and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am Hashem your God. But they rebelled against Me and did not listen to Me; they did not throw away the detestable things of their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt… But I acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be desecrated in the eyes of the nations….”
So the Jews weren’t really deserving of salvation in that instance, but God acted anyway, for the sake of His name.
Similarly, according to the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 3:4), Moshe asked God what merit the Jews possessed that warranted them being redeemed from Israel. God answered that at that time they didn’t actually have such merit, but they were destined to receive the Torah. Other midrashim cite different sources of future merit. In any event, we see that one might be saved for merit he is yet to earn.
When it comes to Chanukah, the Yavanim (Syrian-Greeks) had a distinct advantage over the Jews. Their military was far more numerous and their weaponry was far more sophisticated. The miracle of Chanukah was not that the menorah burned for eight days, it was that the small guerilla forces of the Maccabees defeated the far superior army of Antiochus. The miracle of the oil was simply a sign to confirm that the military victory was in fact miraculous.
So what was the merit of the Chashmonaim (the Hasmoneans, AKA the Maccabees)? Well, the oppression of the Yavanim wasn’t strictly political; it had a huge philosophical component. The Greeks were determined to eradicate Torah observance and convert the Jews to Hellenism. The Chashmonaim – who were kohanim, the Jewish religious leaders – were dedicated to preserving Jewish sovereignty so that we might be able to serve God as we saw fit. So one might posit that the Chashmonaim merited victory because of the Torah that they taught.
It’s also possible that the Chashmonaim were granted victory because of future merits. The Second Temple era, after the expulsion of the Yavanim from Israel, was a renaissance of Torah. (The first Tannaim – the Sages of the Mishna – are from this era.) So perhaps the Jews were permitted to be victorious because of the merit that would result from their triumph.
While we don’t rely on miracles, they do still happen. The Talmud in Brachos (20a) asks why earlier generations merited miracles but our generation doesn’t. After all, if anything, our Torah study exceeds that of our predecessors! It answers that the earlier generations worked really hard to sanctify God’s name, while we don’t put that much effort into doing so. So it could just be that the generation of Chanukah was much better at sanctifying God’s name. This would be a good thing for us to work on!
So I can’t tell you specifically what merit leads to military victory, but I can tell you this: The Sifre (Devarim 229:7) teaches that good things are brought about through worthy people, while bad things are brought about through unworthy people. If we want good things to happen, we should all work at being worthy of them!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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