Making a Miracle Great: Rabbi Soloveitchik on the Miracle of Chanukah

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Nes gadol hayah sham, “A great miracle happened there.” These beloved words are symbolized by the four initials nun (נ) gimmel ( ג), heh ( ה), shin ( ש), which appear on the dreidel, referring of course to the miracle of Chanukah.

Moses stands at the burning bush and observes a miracle. The bush is on fire and astonishingly the leaves and branches are not consumed. Moses witnesses his first miracle. In response he says, “I see a great sight” (Exodus 3:3).

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asks: “Why did Moses not call it a nes, a miracle? Why did he simply say, ‘I see something great’?”

Although Moses was aware that he was witnessing a miracle, that is not what intrigued him. Rather, what riveted Moses was the message that he heard. It was a great sight for one reason: because Moses responded to the call of God.

Simply seeing something supernatural did not impress Moses. The burning bush was “great” in his mind and heart because in that extraordinary interaction, Moses took on a new challenge and charted a new course in his life. The moment was transformative. Moses accepted a new mission.

Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, “It is not always necessary for an event to be miraculous in order to be great, and not every miraculous event is a great event.” An event is great only if the following things occur: it fosters change, it impacts the person, it ushers in a new era, and it produces great things. Whether or not the event was miraculous or natural is not critical. No matter how miraculous an event is, it is very “small” if it is wasted.

This teaching speaks directly to the great miracle of Chanukah. These events were great because they produced a transformation of the Jewish people. The Jews proved that not only could they defeat a fierce enemy on the battlefield, but they could also purify the spiritual defilement of a whole population, a nation that overwhelmingly had sunk deeply into the impurity of the soul and contamination of the spirit.

The events witnessed during the days of Chanukah inspired change. Life did not remain the same as before. During the days of Chanukah, the Jews took advantage of the new opportunity that was offered to them: a spiritual revival and a rededication to religious values and to a committed life – truly a great thing.

The Jewish people engaged in a national rededication to the Torah and tradition. “Rededication” is the very meaning of the word Chanukah. The Sages waited a full year before they declared Chanukah a holiday. Why did they not establish the holiday immediately after the great miracles of the disproportionate battle and the eight-day burning of the one flask of pure oil in the Menorah?

The Sages waited to see whether the change was lasting. Had the Jewish people truly transformed their lives? Only then, when the Sages saw the life-changing impact, did they consider this story to be great, worthy of celebration for all time.

The Jewish people, in the days of Chanukah, acted heroically, not only on the battlefield, but also in renewing and strengthening their allegiance to God and to the Torah.

As we celebrate these events each year, we should also aspire to emulate this remarkable kind of heroism in our own lives.

Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider has published a new book on Chanukah, ‘The Light That Unites” ( Halpern Press). His best selling Haggadah, “The Night That Unites” was published in English (Urim Press) and Hebrew ( Yediot Achronot Press).