Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
"Mikkeitz, Chanukah and relying on miracles"
31 December 2005

At the beginning of the saga of Joseph’s life he is described as na’ar, a mere lad, someone who lacks tact and sensitivity. And that is what got him into such trouble in his relationship with his other brothers. He sensed he was chosen for greatness, but he lacked the sense required to attain it. He only developed and matured after he had confronted adversity and was thrown onto his own resources. As long as he thought he had to rely on other people, his suffering was prolonged. And this is how the Midrash explains the opening words of today’s sidrah: Vayehi mikkeitz sh’natayim yamim, “And it came to pass at the end of two years [in prison] (Gen.41:1).” We recall that, in prison, he had asked the royal cup-bearer, whose dream he had successfully interpreted, to do him a favour and to keep him in mind and mention his plight to Pharaoh (Gen.40: 15).

This may seem to us a fairly reasonable and innocuous request. However, the Midrash (Ber.Rabb.89:3) does not think so. It maintains that on account of Joseph’s having placed all his trust and reliance on another, and having asked of him two favours – to "remember" him and to "mention” him to Pharaoh, two further years were added by God to the time Joseph spent in prison. Hence Vayehi mikkeitz sh’natayim yamim, “And it came to pass after two years.” (Gen.41:1).

But was that not a rather heavy price to pay for such a natural request for help? By way of explanation, the Midrash quotes the Psalmist, "Happy is the man who makes the Lord his trust and does not turn to the arrogant" (Psalm 40:5). This is elucidated by the 18th century commentator, the Netziv of Volozhin (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin), in his Ha'amek Davar. This is intended to show, he says, that, in a crisis, one should rely neither on human beings alone, nor on God alone to provide a miracle. Of course, those who seek a way out of difficult situations should not fail to pray for Divine aid, for frequently God answers by sending earthly agents to work on His behalf. But if one tries to manage without God entirely, and put one’s trust in human beings, they often prove to be broken reeds, unreliable and unsympathetic.

The point is beautifully illustrated in a story told of David Ben Gurion and Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog. In the tense days of the Israeli War of Independence, it is said that Ben Gurion came to the rabbi and asked why God doesn’t send the Israelis some miracles to get them out of their present crisis? Rav Herzog replied, "But Prime Minister, He has: You are one of God's miracles!"

Indeed, one of the reasons the sages lay such inordinate stress on the miracle of the Chanukah oil, rather than on the military prowess of the Macccabees, was precisely so that we should appreciate the element of the miraculous - by which they meant the hand of God – in absolutely everything that happens in life. What we perceive as our own achievements, be they military, medical, scientific or cultural, have their origins in a divine creativity that has been shared with man. We are all ‘one of God’s miracles.’

At certain times of our lives we sense it particularly powerfully. A baby is born, and the grateful, doting parents look at it, and have that overwhelming sense that birth in general, and their baby in particular, is truly “one of God’s miracles.” Or if we are delivered from danger, or recover from serious illness, against all odds. Indeed, we thank God three times a day, in the Modim prayer for al nisekha sheb’khol yom immanu, ‘the miracles that we experience every day.’ The challenge of life is that, once having been born a divine miracle, we have to endeavour, throughout our lives, to live in gratitude for it and to be worthy of it.

There are truly many occasions and situations, in the lives of us all, when the privilege is offered to us of touching the lives of others, of making a difference, of offering help, advice, love and support, as representatives of the Almighty Himself. And when we transform the lives of God’s children in such a way, then, for that person, our unexpected relief and intervention truly makes us “one of God’s miracles.”

We can live the life of the young Joseph, as an immature na’ar, until our dying day, or we can be “one of God’s miracles.” We can drown in adversity or we can use it as a springboard to a more mature, focused, independent and constructive life. The choice is ours. There is no reason why the miracle we commemorate on Chanukah should not last throughout the year, and every year of our life.