The Nature of Nature

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It is a strange and disorienting panorama that Rabbi E. E. Dessler, the celebrated Jewish thinker (1892-1953) asks us to ponder: a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.

The thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground.   The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing – most astonishing of all – seeds of its own!

Notes Rabbi Dessler, there is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous.  We simply use the former word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and the latter one for those we have not before experienced.  All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.

It is a thought poetically rendered by Emerson, who wrote: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…”

A thought, in fact, that subtly informed famed physicist Paul Davies’ recent op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote that “the very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

And it is a thought, too, that, according to several renowned Jewish thinkers, has pertinence to Chanukah.

The supernatural nature of nature lies at the heart of the answer he suggests for one of the most famous questions in the canon of Jewish religious law, posed in the 1500s by the author of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo: Why, if oil sufficient for one day was discovered in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple when the Macabees reclaimed it from Seleucid control, is Chanuka eight days long?  True, that is how long the candles burned, allowing the priests to prepare new, uncontaminated oil.  But was not one of those eight days simply the day for which the found oil sufficed, and thus not itself a miracle-day worthy of commemoration?

Suggest those sources: Seven of Chanukah’s days commemorate the miracle that, in the time of the Maccabees, the candelabrum’s flames burned without oil.  The eighth commemorates the miracle of the fact that oil burns at all.

The suggestion pithily echoes an account in the Talmud (Ta’anit, 25a), in which the daughter of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before the Sabbath that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Sabbath lamps, and began to panic.  Rabbi Chanina, a man who vividly perceived G-d’s hand in all and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her.  “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar [as well] to burn.”

There is, in fact, one day of Chanukah’s eight that is set apart from the others, designated with a special appellation.  The final day of the holiday – this year beginning with the candle-lighting on the night of Tuesday, December 11 and continuing through the next day – is known as “Zos Chanukah,” after the Torah passage beginning “Zos chanukas hamizbe’ach” (“This is the dedication of the altar”) read in the synagogue that day.

The Jewish mystical sources consider that day to be the final reverberation of the Days of Awe marked many weeks earlier.  Although Rosh Hashana was the year’s day of judgment and Yom Kippur was the culmination of the days of repentance, later “time-stones” of the period of G-d’s judgment of our actions are cited as well.  One is Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot.  And the final one, according to the sources, is “Zos Chanukah.”

It would indeed seem to be a fitting day for thinking hard about the “supernature” in nature, the miraculous in the seemingly mundane.  For what is what we call a miracle if not a more-clear-than-usual manifestation of G-d?  And what are the Days of Awe if not a time when He is “close” to us, when G-d-consciousness is at front and center?

And so, perhaps the final day of Chanukah presents us with a singular opportunity to ponder how, just as the ubiquity and predictability of nature can mislead us, allowing us to forget that all is, in truth, G-d’s will, so too can the weeks elapsed since the late summer Days of Awe lull us into a state of unmindfulness regarding the import of our actions.

If so, the final night of Chanukah might be a particularly apt time to gaze at the eight flames leaking enlightenment into the world and, as we prepare to head into the dismal darkness of what some might consider a “G-d-forsaken winter,” know that, still and all, as always, “His glory fills the universe.”

© 2007 Rabbi Avi Shafran