Night of Hidden Miracles: Parashat Vayetse
Delivered at Nehar Shalom, 2013
This year, we have a special holiday coming up, one rarely if ever celebrated in our calendar. The people are calling it Thanksgivukkah.
This year Thanksgiving comes on the first day/second night of Hannukah. According to the Huffington Post, the last time this happened was in 1888. Some calculators of the Jewish calendar are saying it won't happen again for another, oh, 70,000 years or so.
On the surface, it's easy to make comparisons between the two holidays. Indeed, as many Jews are pointing out, Hannukah is much better suited to be paired with Thanksgiving than with Christmas. Both holidays share the story small group of people working for their religious freedom, and expressing gratitude for the miracle of their survival. The Colbert report expresses some serious worry about this merger: “Pretty soon school kids will think Thanksgiving started when the Wampanoags sat down with the Maccabees and the yams lasted for eight nights.”
But I am interested in a more subtle and, I think, spiritually vital theme in both of these holidays, and it's a theme that we find in this week's parasha.
In Vayetse, our ancestor Jacob flees from his brother, Esau. On his way to his uncle, Jacob comes upon an unnamed place, and stops as the sun is going down. While he is sleeping, he dreams of a ladder with messengers of God going up and down. He hears God speak to him, and promise him that his descendants will inherit this land. And then: וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי. ...מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה: - Jacob awoke from his sleep and said "Wow! So God is in this place, and I did not know it... How awesome is this place!"
Let's leave Jacob for a moment and return to Hannukah through a teaching of the 18th century hasidic master, Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740–1809), known by the name of his beloved work, the Kedushat Levi. According to the Kedushat Levi, there are two kinds of miracles - נגלים ונסתרים – revealed miracles, and hidden miracles. Revealed miracles are ones that God initiates and that change the course of nature. The splitting of the Sea of Reeds was a revealed miracle. No one could fail to see it. The Kedushat Levi calls this kind of miracle "day" because it is so clear, so obvious to all, and it sheds its light on everyone easily.
But Hannukah (and here I am going to concentrate on the sacred myth of Hannukah, not the historical Hannukah), Hannukah where the Jews were saved by the actions of human beings, is an example of what the Kedushat Levi calls a hidden miracle. On the surface, it looks like the normal habitual order of the world, הֶרְגֶל – routine. But really, it is the hand of God playing all the pieces to make the story come out right. The Kedushat Levi calls the hidden miracles "night" because they are not immediately apparent. On the surface it looks like הֶרְגֶל – routine. But if we open up our awareness, we see it is actually a miracle from God.
Now here is where the Kedushat Levi makes a jump I find amazing. He says that the point of the holidays of Hannukah (and also Purim, by the way) is not to notice and praise God for the hidden miracles the holidays commemorate. Rather it is to awaken our awareness that everything is a miracle, all throughout the rest of our year, our weeks, our days, these holidays teach us the message that it is all God - our getting up in the morning, our breathing in and out, the sun rising and setting. These things are not to be taken for granted. They are evidence of the Holy One, and the more aware we are of them as miracles, the more we open ourselves to the Holy One's light and presence.
We rejoin Jacob as he awakes. וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי: - Jacob awoke from his sleep and said "Wow! So God is in this place, and I did not know it." But we then a few verses later we read וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר: - Jacob woke up early in the morning. Why say both that he awoke from his sleep and that he woke up early in the morning? To indicate that when Jacob first awoke from his sleep, it was still night. The miracles were hidden from him
The Kedushat Levi, who called hidden miracles "night" was teaching Torah in a time of great darkness for the Hasidim. In the midst of persecution, it was not obvious that God was there for them. Gratitude for miracles was not the obvious response to life. The Kedushat Levi wrote many commentaries on Hannukah and Purim. They seem to be his favorite holidays to teach about, precisely because they are about hidden and not revealed miracles. They spoke directly to his Hasidim, to the place of darkness.
Jacob awakes in darkness and feels God presence where he did not realize it was before. "Wow. God was in this place and I did not know it." Wow, I woke up today and that is a miracle from God. Wow, I drew another breath, and that is a miracle. If we wait for the sea splitting to prove to ourselves God is with us we will never get there. But if we listen to the message of the hidden miracle, the message of Hannukah, then we might find God's presence where it is, hidden in the plain sight of our lives.
Mary Oliver says "Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." Internally we need to do the work of paying attention and letting ourselves be astonished. But communally, we need our religious and cultural rituals to help us tell about it, to shine candles in the dark and help us keep our awareness of hidden miracles throughout the year.
As we turn toward the darkening days, may we use this time to refresh our awareness of the hidden miracles of our lives. Happy early Thanksgivukkah. If we're lucky, maybe the yams will last 8 days. It would be a miracle.