My two-volume rabbi’s manual contains instructions for delivering a get, a writ of Jewish divorce, rituals for welcoming a baby girl into the Jewish people, and prayers for healing. Nowhere in its more than 500 pages is there ritual or instruction on how to work a miracle. Many times, in my career as a rabbi I have wished that there were. Beloved congregants suffer from mental illness, cancer, accidents, or infertility, and I wish that I could say just the right words in just the right order, wave around a Havdalah candle, and fix their problems. But I cannot, and, within our tradition, my skill-set should not be otherwise.
The sages were skeptical about personal miracles, no matter who worked them. They record instances of healing in response to the prayers of particular scholars and other interventions on behalf of individuals, but these accounts are sometimes accompanied by criticism of the person who called for the miracle.
One such talmudic story is from Ta’anit 24a: Rabbi Yossi from Yokrat hired day labourers to work his field. As their employer, Rabbi Yossi was responsible for bringing them food, but he was delayed while fulfilling a mitzvah. When the workers grew too hungry, they appealed to Rabbi Yossi’s son, who said, “Fig tree, fig tree! Yield your fruits and feed my father’s workers!” The fig tree obeyed the command, and the workers ate. However, when Rabbi Yossi from Yokrat returned from performing his mitzvah, he criticized his son for bothering his Creator.
The bias against miracles is emphasized by Rabbi Yossi’s next words, in which he curses his son that just as he caused the fig tree to yield fruit before its time, so too he will die before his proper time. The point is driven home by the story’s final words that the rabbi’s son did indeed die young.
The sages are more approving of the miracles worked by God on behalf of the nation, rather than the individual. In a midrash from Bereishit Rabbah, Rabbi Yochanan states that, at the time of Creation, God imposed the condition on the sea that it would split for the Israelites when they fled Pharaoh’s chariots. Likewise, in a mishnah from Pirkei Avot, seeming miracles on behalf of all Israelites are worked into the fabric of the natural order of Creation. Such boons to the nation as Miriam’s well that watered the Israelites in their desert wanderings and the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach and his fellow rebels against Moses’ divinely-ordained leadership are said to have been created on the eve of the first Shabbat. These events are miracles, but they are miracles paradoxically arising out of the natural order and miracles on behalf of all Israelites, rather than to the benefit of one person in need.
The Hanukkah miracle is another wonder worked for the nation. When the Maccabees defeated the Syrians and recaptured the Temple, they had enough pure oil for only one day. The miracle was that this one cruse of oil lasted for the eight days necessary to rededicate the Temple, the seat of the Jewish forces’ national aspirations.
One detail from the Hanukkah story, as it is recorded in the Talmud at Shabbat 21b, is important to the point that rabbis are not, and should not be, miracle workers, whether on behalf of all Jews or to the benefit of one Jew in need. The Talmud says, “A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah from it for eight days.” We are not told who worked the miracle. The verb is in the passive voice, leaving us to infer, rightly, that God is responsible for the miracle.
Moreover, we are not told which priest lit the lamps. If we knew this information, we might be tempted to think that this individual was the instrument of a miracle. Even worse, if this priest’s name were recorded for posterity, he might have been tempted to regard himself as the one who worked the miracle.
This level of ego is dangerous among clergy, be they Temple priests or modern rabbis, imams, and ministers of any faith.
A few months ago, I participated in a panel of clergy members speaking to residents at the local teaching hospital about end-of-life pastoral issues. Two clergy members from other faiths told stories in which they claimed that their rites or prayers had revived stillborn babies. I was speechless. We serve God, not the other way around. To think that our acts or words bring God’s power to work a miracle into the life of a congregant is to think that we control some aspect of God. Clergy who confuse themselves with the divine in this way are capable of causing great harm.
In addition to serving God, clergy must serve our congregants, a task we fail to fulfil if we think of ourselves as miracle workers. If we revive the stillborn baby of one congregant, why don’t we do it for another? The answer, of course, is that we have nothing to do with it, but the congregant whose suffering was not relieved might take the omission personally. How then could we ever again be in relationship with that congregant?
Thinking of ourselves as miracle-workers constructs another obstacle to serving our congregants. A rabbi’s pastoral education trains her to offer comfort through steadfast presence and total willingness to hear all of a congregant’s pain, fear, and anger. We learn to offer prayers as a way of helping someone who is suffering pour himself out to God. If we present ourselves as capable of another purpose, we rob the congregant of the help we can give. Holding out false hope for a miracle will prevent the congregant from expressing his suffering and us from hearing it. It will get in the way of the sufferer’s connection to God.
At Hanukkah, God worked a miracle for the nation. When you suffer, your rabbi would love to offer you a personal miracle, but she cannot – and should not. Rather, she will be present, listen, and pray with you. Anything else is up to God alone.