The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach played a Hanukkah concert at Yeshiva University in New York when I was a student there. In between songs, he told stories and shared Torah insights, all the while strumming his guitar and speaking in a sing-song voice. He talked about miracles, an appropriate theme for Hanukkah.
“When I wake up in the morning,” he began, “it’s a miracle. If I can open my eyes, it’s a miracle. If I stand on my feet …” The singing rabbi continued rhyming off a series of seemingly mundane actions until he said, “If I open a Gemara, it’s a miracle.” There was a sudden pause as both he and the audience – consisting of yeshiva students – realized the double entendre. The house erupted in laughter.
Reb Shlomo was making an important point. We generally think of miracles as supernatural events, such as the splitting of the Red Sea. However, we should be equally amazed by the intricate functioning of the human body and the natural world around us.
In the Amidah prayer that is said at least three times a day, we thank the Almighty, “for your miracles that are with us every day . . .” Let me ask you something. How many wondrous occurrences do you experience in a typical month, never mind every day? A teacher of mine once explained it as follows: If the sun were to rise over the horizon only one time during your lifetime, you would consider it a miracle. So too, if a human egg was to become fertilized and develop into a living embryo once in a millennium, we would be amazed beyond belief. The fact that these phenomena occur on a regular basis, leads us to see them not as supernatural but as something to be expected. Some people, such as a couple who conceive a baby after many years of being childless, can more readily relate to this idea.
Some natural events are miraculous in the usual sense of the word. The Purim story is a prime example of this. The holiday celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people from imminent annihilation by Haman. But it also commemorates a milestone in their spiritual maturity.
The Talmud, in analyzing a verse in Megillat Esther, asserts that, “the Jews confirmed on Purim what they had accepted at Mount Sinai.” The divine revelation had been totally miraculous in every way. The mountain shook, thunder was mystically visible, the sound of a supernatural shofar could be heard, and, amidst it all, the Almighty communicated directly with an entire nation of people. Contrast that with the Purim story, when no such open miracles took place.
However, the Jews of the time realized that what seemed like a series of random occurrences – Vashti getting killed, a Jewish woman becoming Queen, Mordechai foiling a plot to kill the King, etc. – were all part of a divine plan to save the Jews. That recognition of God acting behind the scenes to orchestrate all of these events, revealed that the Jewish people had reached a new level of belief.
There are, of course, the supernatural miracles. The goal of these is not to wow us as much as to teach us something. This can be seen in the holiday of Hanukkah. The container of oil burning for eight days was clearly what can be described as an “open” miracle. Yet it was relatively subtle and low-key as miracles go. It was all the Almighty needed to show. He sanctioned the rededication of the temple.
Maimonides has a very interesting perspective on miracles that seems to put it all together. He explains that the best way to develop a relationship of love and awe with the Almighty is to study and contemplate the universe. When one thinks about the complexity and intricacy of everything God created, it should make one feel relatively insignificant and more appreciative of and amazed by the One who is responsible for it all.
How do miracles fit into all this? Maimonides writes that all of the open miracles that would occur throughout history were built into the cosmos. For example, when the waters were parted on the second day of Creation, they had it in their nature so that they could later on split for Moses at the Red Sea and on other astonishing occasions. Maimonides thus incorporates miracles into the splendour of nature rather than making them an exception to it. One’s belief in the Almighty can be equally enhanced whether food grows from the ground or falls as manna from the skies.
I recently experienced what I consider to be a personal miracle. Shadows floating before my eyes prompted me to visit an ophthalmologist. A series of tests revealed a much more serious condition that needed immediate attention. I asked the doctor if there was any connection between the diagnosis and the shadows. He said they were totally unrelated. I was lucky to have been examined.
To my mind, it had nothing to do with luck. A month earlier, I had attended a Torah study program at a local shul. My usual learning partner was absent and I was set up with a man who is an ophthalmologist. The next day I began seeing the shadows. Normally, I wouldn’t have done anything about it since I’d experienced it before. However, because of our chance meeting, I decided to text my new acquaintance. While reassuring me that it was probably nothing, he arranged for me to see a retina specialist that same day. The receptionist expressed astonishment that I was given an appointment that quickly. Tests were done and without telling me that he suspected something serious, he referred me to another physician. More scans were carried out and I was given the diagnosis.
What may seem like coincidence to someone else, was in my eyes (no pun intended), an obvious miracle orchestrated from above. Had all of these seemingly random events not occurred, the results could have been devastating. It was my own Purim story, just in time for Hanukkah.