By Rabbi Gary J. Lavit ~
On one of my backpacking trips, I got caught in bad weather while walking on top of a nearly mile-high mountain range. The sun had gone down. It was pitch-black dark. AND the clouds had come down and covered the entire ridge line of the mountain range. My flashlight did me no good; it only reflected its light back into my face. I was in the clouds and could not see ahead. There was no way that I would be able to reach the shelter at which I had planned to spend the night. It was more than two miles away and 1,000 feet below, and I wouldn’t be able to see my way over the boulders of two small summits that I’d have to pass along the way. Nor could I turn back, because the way back was steep and included streams and waterfalls, which I could not safely cross and descend at night. And there had been a sheer precipice—a cliff—along the way that I dared not try to pass, on the way back in the fog. As I stood there, the cold blowing mist and drizzling rain cut through to the bone, and I started to shiver. I knew then that I had better do something quickly, or I’d die on the mountain from the cold.
I later read the story of another camper who, when caught in a similarly critical situation, thought of praying. But he decided not to, because, he said, he was not accustomed to praying, and if he were to pray, he might become passive and expect God to save him, without making any effort of his own. He decided to rely upon his own skills, as he was accustomed to doing. And he did survive, on those efforts, without prayer.
Need we set up a dichotomy in which EITHER we rely on God OR we rely on ourselves? The Chanukah story ends with the famous miracle of a one-day supply of consecrated olive oil which lasted eight days instead of one. The holiday celebrates the miracle of those eight days. But, we may ask, what was the miracle of the FIRST day? There was enough oil for the first day, anyway, without any miracle. The miracle occurred only from the second through the eighth day! So, what miracle are we celebrating on the first? The answer, says Rabbi David Hartman, is that the humans in-charge of the situation could have given up, in face of the odds against them. But they had faith in divine assistance and were not deterred. They lit their one-day supply, and the eternal lamp continued to burn long beyond its natural expectations. Humans made their own miracle, with their own efforts. God then built upon the human miracle by extending it beyond all natural capabilities.
In my own case that night, I stopped, thought, and made use of whatever skills and materials I had, to improvise shelter to keep dry and warm. As I was doing this, I was acutely aware of a strength from above, upon which I relied to keep level-headed and to do what I needed to do. There was no human with me on that mountain, but I knew that I was not alone.
In looking back, my story was but an adventure. Others, whom I know, have stories that are ordeals. In the course of our lives, we may be faced with painful and dire threats to our very existence. We cannot expect divine help to come all by itself. We must do our part. Our part may require that we go through great pain and suffering along the way. We rely upon the expertise of those helping us, the friendship and support of those who love us, and the surprising strength of our own spirit that may come from an unknown, miraculous source.
Rabbi Lavit is director of pastoral care at Hebrew Health Care in West Hartford and president of the Greater Hartford Rabbinical Association.