Friday, December 26, 2008

A Hanukkah Message: Stolen Miracles

People often get hung up on the nature of the “miracle of the oil.” Many historians now agree that this miracle, which does not appear in print until the Talmud, in other words, a good 6-7 centuries after the events of Hanukkah occurred, probably was not a key factor in the early observance of the festival. Those observances had more to do originally with the Maccabees’ military victory (in itself miraculous, but later downplayed by the rabbis for strategic and political purposes). Hanukkah undoubtedly also has some roots in ancient winter solstice celebrations that cut across cultural boundaries.

But the question of whether the miracle of eight days of oil actually happened is of little concern to me. Even assuming there was little sanctified olive oil left at the time they lit the temple’s menorah – a safe bet, since the Greeks had been on a defiling spree – for me the miracle was not how long it lasted, but that the Jews had the faith to light the menorah at all. They knew full well that the resource was scarce but somehow they defied the odds and believed that it might just last – and it is that faith, as much as the flame itself, that filled with the temple, and all of Zion, with a new light.

It is the same faith that led Joseph, in this week’s portion, to manage the most precious economic resources of the Egyptians, their crops, during the seven years of plenty. The returns were tremendous, but he stored the excess away safely. Then, during the seven years of famine that followed, enough remained to feed not only the entire population of Egypt, but also those of surrounding nations, in their version of a global economy.

Joseph was a sound, visionary and responsible money manager. The miracle of Egyptian and Israelite survival depended on it. It was a miracle forged in faith. The people had faith in him, his vision and his wisdom, and he did not abuse it.

What Bernard Madoff did was revealed only over the past few weeks, but it comes on the heels of numerous other blows to our faith in the people who handle our resources. We’ve lost faith in the ability of our leaders and companies to handle money responsibly. We’ve lost faith in our future. And now, in large part because of Madoff, we’ve lost faith even in the goodness and purity of tzedakkah itself.

In Jewish law, this breach of faith is considered a form of stealing, (called G’neivat Da’at), the stealing of one’s hopes, the theft of trust. Of course in this case, it also involves the actual theft of money. But it is the less tangible form of stealing that is perhaps the most damaging. All forms of cheating fall under this category. Detailed discussions of the subject can be found at and

Click on for a nice survey of recent articles (in the NY Times and elsewhere) where people discuss how Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was indeed G’neivat Da’at of an almost inconceivable and unprecedented degree.

I’ve discussed elsewhere my feelings of disgust about Madoff. Rarely have we been so in need of a communal cleansing. But it seems pointless to focus totally on the negative, on distancing ourselves from Madoff and him from civilized society.

Yesterday I saw the timely and transcendent film “Doubt,” in which deception plays a big role. A key idea expressed by the Meryl Streep character is she understood that her deceitful actions necessarily distanced herself from God (even though she felt the ends ultimately justified the means). We need to recognize that here, as well, our focus should not simply be to distance ourselves from Madoff so much as to recognize how, through his breach of faith, we all feel much more distant now from God.

Where there is no trust, God is distant. Where miracles cease, cynicism begins. We’re feeling very cynical about things right now.

So we light the candles tonight, and more tomorrow, and more yet the next day, until our homes are glowing with wall to wall light, enough to light up the world outside. For now, maybe it’s best to channel our anger and frustration into more positive energy.

Who cares about the amount of oil that burned or its cost per barrel! The miracle is that we continue to produce light at all – that, after all that has happened, we still have enough faith to ignite that next match.

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