One of my favorite midrashim (rabbinic interpretations of Scripture) centers on the story of the Red Sea splitting. God dramatically splits the sea, allowing the Children of Israel to narrowly escape Pharaoh’s charging army. The Children of Israel “marched through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left”(Exodus 14:29).
As the multitude crossed through the sea, two Israelites, lets call them Berel and Shmerel, hurried along among the crowd. But instead of looking up and around in wonder at the walls of water like their brothers and sisters, Berel and Shmerel noticed only that the ground beneath their feet was still a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Berel kvetched, “This is awful! There is mud all over the place!” “Disgusting!”Shmerel concurred. “I’m up to my ankles in muck!” And so it went, Berel and Shmerel continued to whine and complain throughout the march across the sea. For them there was no miracle, only mud. Some even say that Berel and Shmerel are still wandering around the wilderness somewhere, looking down at their dirty feet, lost and grumbling.
I first learned this midrash from my friend and rabbinical school classmate, (now Rabbi) Adam Greenwald, who shared it in a beautiful letter he sent me ahead of my wedding. He explained his point, a lesson that I now share with every couple I marry:
I can imagine that this week will be full of so many things that will draw your and Adira’s attention. There are last minute details to be taken care of and minor fires to put out. There are the challenges of juggling [family and friends]…[T]hrough the storms of this week…remain focused on the miracles that are enfolding around you…Don’t let the mud take you away from the miracles.
I find this wisdom to be so profound, so relevant, and not just for weddings. It applies to all of life. Many of us tend to let mud distract us from miracles. We complain more than we praise. We focus more on negatives than positives. The mundane and trivial receive more attention than the awesome. And, like Berel and Shmerel, the more we fixate on the mud, the more mud becomes all we see, and the more lost we become.
The miracle of the first Hanukkah was much more subtle than the splitting of the Red Sea, of course, which makes me wonder how the Jews back then related to the miracle as it was taking place. After all, even though the oil miraculously lasted longer than it was supposed to, each night’s flames were inevitably a little smaller than the previous night’s as the oil incrementally diminished. Did the Jews witness with amazement that the flames did not go out? Or did they kvetch, more and more each night, that the flames were much more paltry than the night before? Did they pine for a bygone era when there was plenty of oil to go around? Did they point fingers? And, even if they acknowledged the amazing nature of the oil lasting for 8 nights, how quickly did they turn from watching the flickering flames to fixate on the mess in the rest of the Temple?
I’d like to believe that the Jews of that first Hanukkah spent 8 nights enraptured by the miracle. But chances are, those Jews were much like us today. In fact, this may help explain why no Jewish text makes mention of the miracle of the oil until the Talmud, which was written more than half a millennium after the Hanukkah story took place!
By putting the story of the miracle back as the central focus of the holiday, the rabbis of the Talmud were teaching us to pay attention to the miracles in our lives, however small or subtle they may be. It is easy to get distracted by the negative and the mundane, to get lost in a self-perpetuating cycle of cynicism and banality. But if we can mind our miracles, we get to spend our days in praise andcelebration, gratitude and happiness, reaching the Promised Land of our own personal hopes and dreams.