Somehow, this time of year is reminding me of two conversations I had with my oldest when she was much younger. They might not seem to be connected, but I think they are. (I share them here with her permission.)
One conversation occurred right around when she lost her first tooth, and it’s brought to mind every year by the ubiquitous portrayals of a certain jolly fellow in a red suit – especially by cute stories of non-Jewish children who do or don’t still believe in him, and Jewish children who are cautioned not to spoil the magic for their non-Jewish friends. I’m grateful that I never encountered that particular challenge, because I’m not sure I could do it.
After all, in that conversation with my daughter, I couldn’t bring myself to lie about the Tooth Fairy.
“Ima, is the Tooth Fairy real?” Um, um, oh no, everyone says this is an important part of childhood and that kids need to believe in magic, but how can I tell her something that’s not true and then expect her to believe me about anything else? How is this supposed to work?
I remember my older sister teasing me as a child about being a terrible liar, and I remember thinking that should be a compliment, not an insult. I remember first being faced with a situation (though I can’t remember the context) in which most parents would have told their children a white lie, and actively choosing not to. Choosing truth, though perhaps not always the whole truth, as a matter of principle even on apparently minor issues – to model a value for my children that I hold dear, and to (I hope) build trust between us. I won’t even tell them a shot won’t hurt; I say it probably will hurt, but that it will be very quick and that it’s important to do it to keep them healthy.
No, I’m not criticizing anyone else’s parenting choices; plenty of people grow up just fine being told the Tooth Fairy is real, or that shots won’t hurt. But those little lies just never sat right in me.
So when my daughter asked about the Tooth Fairy, I responded the only way I could: “Do you really want me to answer that?” (Yup, answering a question with a question was my only option. I was raised by a philosophy teacher and a lawyer, after all, and my own kids experience the effects.)
The thing is, she knew the truth, and I hope my confirming it helped solidify her faith in the truth of other things I tell her. It also did not detract from her opportunities for financial growth; we still play along with each tooth, at least when we remember. We have fun joking about it, everyone knowing that everyone knows it’s a game. (“Who, me? Tooth Fairy? What makes you say that? Do you see any wings?”)
And I deeply believe that telling her the truth did not detract from her ability to find magic and wonder in the world – because we don’t need the Tooth Fairy for that.
I know this because of the second conversation. It has a less obvious connection to the season – this time, to Chanukah – and was really more of an observation she made than a conversation. We were in the car, passing a certain gigantic ornate building, and she commented, at the age of four, “Wow, Ima, look at that building! I didn’t know Hashem could make something like that!” (Given the nature of the building, her observation was somewhat ironic.)
It wasn’t a conversation because I was too overcome with my own sense of wonder, and nachas, to respond anything much.
Her comment reminded me of my confusion trying to make sense of The Fountainhead, when I was 18 or 19 and a friend recommended the author. (I don’t know why, but she was a fan.) The details are hazy and I have no interest in rereading the book to refresh my memory, but if I recall correctly, there was a running theme of architecture as representing human ability and achievement, which the author seemed to feel constituted an argument against religion. But, I remember thinking, If humans can create magnificent structures, isn’t that just further indication of the greatness of the G-d who created us?
Ayn Rand may not have agreed with me, but my four-year-old got it.
My four-year-old could see the wonder and majesty in the world, in nature and in human achievements, and ascribe it all to its divine roots.
What does this have to do with Chanukah?
It’s my favorite answer to one of the classic questions of Chanukah. The question is, if the oil was sufficient to burn for one night but miraculously lasted for eight – well, do the math: One of the eight nights was natural; only seven were miraculous. So why do we light for eight nights, when there are only seven nights of miracle to celebrate?
Among the many answers I’ve heard, one has always resonated with me the most. In the words of Eliyahu KiTov:
The Greeks wanted to uproot faith in Divine Providence from the Jewish heart. … Many Jews inclined to their view. Events however convinced them that all existence reflected Divine Providence; that even when the world functioned in accord with natural law, it still remained totally dependent on the Hand of God and His Providence. From the miracle they understood that the natural function of oil is also a miracle. (Book of Our Heritage, vol. 1, p. 286-287)
We tend to grow accustomed to nature, to ourselves and our own abilities to manipulate nature. We study science and think we understand the workings of the world. We think nothing of lighting a match and putting it to a wick; we congratulate ourselves for our big accomplishments, the buildings we construct. But when a drop of oil lasts eight times longer than nature would allow, we get a little reminder that the flame only burns in the first place, even for one night or even a moment, because G-d created it that way – and that itself is miraculous.
Maybe we even remember that the laws of physics that hold up our structures, the opposable thumbs that allow us to design and build them in the first place, the rich complexity of our own minds, the needs and hopes and dreams that motivate all that elaborate planning and construction – it’s all from G-d, and it’s all miraculous too.
In fact, according to a spectacular passage in the Meshech Chachmah, those things we take for granted in nature are the true miracles. In a long comment on Vayikra 26:4, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen points out how wonderous it truly is when G-d provides “rains in their season,” as the pasuk describes. He suggests that open, obvious miracles are not the ideal; nature is. The purpose of those open miracles is rather “to point people’s attention to divine acts in nature” – as above, the seven openly miraculous nights of burning oil remind us that the first night was miraculous too. In fact, he goes on to argue that the obvious miracles, that go above nature, are not even so impressive; it’s the daily ongoing functioning of nature, like the mundane way in which rains fall exactly when expected, with nothing showy about it, that is truly remarkable.
And behold, open miracles outside the natural order, such as the manna and the like, are not so wondrous. But the really wondrous aspect of nature is the ongoing provision of sustenance, that sustains existence and complex individuals; in a natural manner, every day there is designated sustenance for thousands upon thousands…that each one is sustained from nature. That is a function that indicates the wisdom and perfection of Hashem, to those who understand, more than miracles.
Yes, my child, there is magic and cause for deep wonder and joy in the world; it’s all around us, behind everything we are or do or see in this world. But its name is not Tooth Fairy. Its name is G-d, and I pray that my children – and I – will always be able to perceive and marvel at it for what it truly is.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.