As we know, Jewish holidays are either “early” or “late” each year; they never seem to
come “on time.” This is due to the Jewish calendar running on lunar time rather than
solar, but at the same time, a desire to keep our holidays, more or less, in the same
season each year. 5784, our current year, is a leap year with 13 months instead of 12.
Since the lunar year is 11 days shorter than most solar years, we will add a 30-day
month this year to make up for the loss of those 11 days each year. We do this on
seven years out of a nineteen year cycle. That means that while the holidays seem
early this year, next year we’ll claim that they are late. So, that means we need to get
our menorahs out now because Chanukah starts next week, with the first candle on
Thursday night, December 7 th . Still on the 25 th of Kislev, but a little earlier than
(Instructions for lighting candles, with all the blessings and appropriate prayers, appear on the Temple B’nai Israel website under “Home Prayers”. Click on this link:
https://www.temple-bnai-israel.org/prayers-rituals and then scroll down past the Shabbat home prayers to the Chanukah section.)
While the first Chanukah blessing speaks about lighting candles, the second one recited each night, praises God who “did miracles for our ancestors in those days at this season.” The same blessing is recited on Purim, right after the blessing for reading the Megillah. Similarly, on both Chanukah and Purim, we add the “Al Hanisim” passage, praising God for the miracles of those seasons in the blessing of thanksgiving in each Amidah as well as in the second blessing of the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals. Some also do so on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence day. The Al Hanisim prayer always starts the same way, but then goes on for each of these holidays enumerating the miracles of that particular season. The version for Chanukah mentions the miraculous victory of the small band of Maccabees over the mighty army of “the wicked Greek empire.” Surprisingly, perhaps, though it mentions the lighting of the menorah in the Temple, there is no mention in this prayer of the story of the oil which miraculously lasted for eight days.
This omission should not surprise us, however, for we insert this passage into the
blessing of thanksgiving in the Amidah which offers thanks to God for “Your miracles
that are with us every day and Your wonders and goodness at all times, evening,
morning, and noon.” In other words, what our sages who wrote these prayers intended by the term “nes or nissim” miracle or miracles, is not some supernatural intervention into the world changing the course of nature, but rather it reflects a sense of wonder for the natural phenomena that fill our world and an appreciation for all that God has created. What about the oil? I would see it as a story with symbolic meaning regarding the survival of the Jewish people through the ages.
Yes, we do find some “miracles” that occur in the Bible and while some scientists
manage to find rational, scientific explanations for them, we have a choice of
considering them simply part of Jewish folklore or seeing them as inexplicable,
miraculous events, limited in number, but well-remembered by our people. Even though we may see God as omnipotent, able to do whatever He wishes, our sages urge us not to depend on miracles. “Ein somchim al ha-nes.”
In spite of this caution, particularly when it comes to serious illness, many people look for miracles, for a miraculous cure. Congregational rabbis and hospital chaplains are often asked to pray for the recovery of terminally ill patients. While once in a while we may know of someone who beat the odds and did recover, most of the time, the physicians who treat such conditions regularly have a pretty good sense of when medical science can do no more for the patient. The question arises as to whether it makes sense to pray for such a patient. Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, the director of the spiritual care department at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, spoke to a group of Jewish chaplains on this very topic last week at a meeting I attended
In his talk and, also, in greater detail, in his book “Jewish Guide to Practical Medical
Decision-Making,” Rabbi Weiner outlines three approaches to this question offered by three contemporary Orthodox rabbinic authorities. In so doing, he gives us a better idea of what prayer is all about, what its purpose is and how effective it may be in fulfilling that purpose.
He begins by presenting a rather conservative approach offered by Rabbi Shlomo
Zalman Auerbach, a well-known halachic authority who died in 1995. Rabbi Auerbach pointed to the teaching of the Mishnah which forbids praying for miracles. There we read: “To cry out over an occurrence that has passed is to utter a prayer in vain. [For example,] if a man’s wife is already pregnant and he says, ‘May it be Your will that my wife give birth to a male,’ this is a prayer in vain. Similarly, if one is coming along the road and he hears the sound of screaming in the city, if he says, ‘May it be Your will that this is not taking place within my house,’ this is a prayer in vain.”
Rabbi Auerbach notes that this ruling appears in the Shulchan Aruch, the major 16 th
century law code, and on it the early 19 th century rabbi, Akiva Eiger comments explicitly, “It is forbidden for a person to pray that God perform a miracle that includes a deviation from the natural order.” Rabbi Auerbach is concerned, also, that one who offers a prayer publicly for someone whom the physicians have given up on curing, may cause a weakening of faith in the community, when the natural course of events occurs and the prayers do not lead to a recovery of the patient. Instead, he recommends offering prayers privately that the patient not suffer and that God mercifully do that which is right for the patient and his family. He states that one should never lose hope in God’s capability of bringing a cure, should He choose, however. we should not engage in numerous, persistent prayers for a miraculous cure.
Rabbi Weiner presents a second viewpoint, that of the Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yakov
Yisrael Kanievsky, who passed away in 1985. Rabbi Kanievsky states that one should
never give up hope even for a desperately ill patient. He believes that prayer is effective even when it does not work miracles. He argues that if there is not a miraculous healing, nonetheless, perhaps prayer lessens the suffering of the patient or it might lengthen his life even by a small amount and Judaism holds that any amount of life is precious. He also notes that while the doctors may have nothing more to offer, we have all heard of unusual cases where a person recovers from a life-threatening illness unexpectedly – dare we say, miraculously. Perhaps this is such a case; one should never lose hope. He goes on to claim that even if none of these results occur, one’s prayers may be adding to the merit of this person in the next world or protecting his offspring in the future. Finally, he suggests that our prayers may be of benefit to the community or to other patients. In short, whether or not he is right, he is arguing for hope even in extreme circumstances. What about the prohibition of praying for miracles? Weiner cites the Steipler’s brother-in-law, the Hazon Ish, who on the basis of those rare cases where the patient does recover, explains that one is not praying for a miracle, per se, but rather that the doctors are wrong. This approach affirms that there often are ways of finding optimism and courage even in the bleakest of circumstances.
The third position offered by Rabbi Weiner is that of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the
outstanding rabbinic authority at Yeshiva University until his death in the ‘90s, known to his students simply as “the Rov.” the rabbi. He sees prayer in a very different light than the other rabbis cited. For Soloveitchik, the goal of prayer is not to receive God’s sympathetic answers to our requests but rather to develop a supportive relationship between a human being and God. As he puts it, “Acceptance of prayer is a hope, a vision, a wish, a petition, but not a principle or a premise.” He goes on to say, “The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences, but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting of God and man.” Elsewhere he states, “It is our persistent hope that our requests will be fulfilled, but it is not our primary motivation for prayer. In praying, we do not seek a response to a particular request as much as we desire a fellowship with God.
Rabbi Weiner says that what the Rov is suggesting is that one can experience profound comfort as a result of prayer, since it can ultimately bring us closer to God. It is the comfort itself that is the effectiveness of prayer. It seems that the Rov draws much of this concept from the teachings of Maimonides. One of Maimonides’ commentators cites the Talmud and states that “a person who expects to have his prayers answered will simply end up heartbroken.” God does what is good in His eyes as to whether to accept our prayers if they are appropriate or not.
Dr. Erica Brown, and educator and author of numerous books, similarly writes, “We
cannot pray audaciously expecting a change in divine will. It is the prayer itself which must ultimately concern us, the way it molds our character, the way it forms our concern for others, the way we demonstrate to the sick that our love may help carry them to good health. In that capacity it is healing.” She goes on to say, “Prayer is not medicine, nor is it meant to be. Unlike medicine, it cannot be taken; it can only be given. It cannot be mechanical; it must be personal. Prayer is not a prevention for pain nor its cure; it is a response to pain.” Using Moses’s prayer for the recovery of his sister Miriam as an example, she states, “It is the emotional, intimate recordings and reflections of Miriam outside the camp, the vociferous pleadings of her brothers inside the camp, and the patient wait of the entire camp that inspired prayer and ultimately began the healing process. Love that inspires prayer inspires healing.”
In a similar spirit, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Prayer, when offered in the right way, redeems people from isolation. It assures them that they need not feel alone and abandoned. It lets them know that they are part of a greater reality, with more depth, more hope, more courage, and more of a future than any individual could have by himself.” Like Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Kushner speaks of prayer not only connecting us with a community, but also with God. Kushner says that the God he believes in does not send us the problem or the illness but gives us the strength to cope with the problem. “I believe that God gives us strength and patience and hope, renewing our spiritual resources when they run dry.” “We don’t have to beg or bribe God to give us strength or hope or patience. We need only to turn to Him, admit that we can’t do this on our own and understand that bravely bearing up under long-term illness is one of the most human, and one of the most godly, things we can ever do.” In short, what Kushner is arguing is that God should not be seen as the one who sends sickness to us, nor as the one who can take it away. He sees God’s role as the one who gives us the strength to face the challenges of life, to deal with illness of ourselves or our loved ones.
Kushner concludes, “You didn’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy. But you discovered
people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy. I offer that as an example of a prayer being answered.”
Our world is filled with the miraculous; miracles are experienced every day, morning,
noon, and night. Among the miracles in the world is the power and strength God gives us to face tragedy, sickness, disappointment in our lives. He offers us a community of prayer to surround us and comfort us and He promises us that He will be with us in our time of sorrow, of pain, and illness, to help us in time of trouble, to give us hope. May we pray for a miracle? Indeed yes, we can offer prayer with confidence that God will hear and that God will be with us in our time of trouble.