Do You Believe in Miracles?
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As we were wrapping up the transaction, I turned to the driver, thanked him, and said something to the effect of: “You know, this is really amazing. There I was getting on a shuttle to pick up my car at the Hyatt, and had I not caught a glimpse of you here at the Hilton (and this was all pre-cellphone), I would be standing there and you would be standing here, and we would never have met up.” I received no reaction, so I pressed my point: “I mean, don’t you think it is amazing? We were supposed to meet at the Hyatt, not the Hilton!” The driver looked at me and said: “But why would I go to the Hyatt, which is three miles away, if the Hilton is right here?” I sputtered: “But look at the paperwork, yours and mine, it clearly says our meeting spot is the Hyatt, not the Hilton. Don’t you find it remarkable, miraculous even, that we met here and everything worked out so smoothly?” At this point, he tore the receipt from his clipboard, handed it to me, and, walking away, shrugged his shoulders and said: “Buddy, sometimes you just get lucky.”
The exchange lasted all of three minutes. It happened over twenty years ago, and I never saw the guy again, but to this day, whenever something serendipitous happens to me or Debbie – a parking spot opens up, a chance encounter with an old friend, a bar mitzvah whose Hebrew name is the same as the protagonist of the Torah reading, or anything for which we have no explanation other than either good fortune or divine intervention – Debbie will turn to me, or I to her, and we will whisper: “Sometimes you just get lucky.” Shall we believe, as I did on that hot Chicago day, that whatever just happened was a miracle? Or shall we believe, as my fleeting flatbed-driving friend insisted, that miracles are the stuff of dreamers, drinkers, and divinity students. For sober and sane people, the world operates according to a fixed order; God’s hand is nowhere near. We would all be better off leaving s nonsensical talk of miracles to the unenlightened storybooks from which they come and where they best belong.
This Thursday evening is the beginning of Hanukkah, the holiday of miracles. When you welcome Hanukkah into your home, when you light that first candle, on your own, in the company of loved ones, or with our virtual community, I ask you to ask yourself the central question of the holiday, the question lurking beneath my exchange decades ago, the question asked by ABC’s Al Michael forty years ago this year: “Do you believe in miracles?”
The question is not Hanukkah’s alone. Pesach has the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. Shavuot celebrates the supernatural revelation of God’s will at Mount Sinai. Our biblical and rabbinic texts do not lack for events that cannot be explained by natural or scientific laws. But it is Hanukkah, more than any other holiday, that puts the idea of a miracle – in Hebrew, nes, (plural, nissim) – front and center. When we light the candles – we praise a God she’asah nissim lavoteinu, who performed miracles for our ancestors. When we recite the Amidah, we add Al ha-nissim, the prayer of praise and gratitude “for the miracles God wrought on behalf of our ancestors of old.” The miracle could be the victory of the small and scrappy Maccabees over their mighty and numerically superior Hasmonean oppressors. The miracle could be the Maccabees’ willingness to maintain their faith in the face of the assimilationist pressures arrayed against them. The miracle could be, as described in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the cruse of oil that, while containing only enough oil for one day, lasted a full eight days. There are many miracles of Hanukkah and you would be well within your rights to focus on whichever one works for you. But what you can’t do, given the festival’s singular focus on nissim, on miracles, is avoid the question: Do you believe in miracles?
Before you weigh in, and certainly before you dismiss those Jews whose views differ from yours, you should know that there are prominent Jewish thinkers on both sides of the debate. As I taught in my Melton class this past week, the thirteenth-century commentator, mystic, and legal scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nachman – Nachmanides – argues that belief in miracles is the underpinning of the entire Torah, and that a person who denies such a belief has no portion in the Torah. The whole point of a life of faith, Nachmanides reasons, is to believe in a God who can upend the laws of nature at any point. There are miracles that are revealed; there are miracles that are hidden; but God’s hand is everywhere. Everything is from God, and be it the splitting of the Sea, the cruse of oil that lasted beyond what anyone believed possible, or the clean biopsy report, it is all proof positive of God’s presence in this world.
Interesting as Nachmanides position on miracles may be, what makes his view really interesting is that no less than a century earlier, no less a scholar than Rabbi Moses ben Maimon – Maimonides – argued exactly the opposite. In biting language, Maimonides explains how the common masses are mistakenly inclined to consider everything miraculous. The simple-minded who enjoy nothing more than shunning reason and the natural order. Maimonides held fast to the belief that ha-olam k’minhago noheig, the world runs according to its natural order.” Furthermore, as I learned from Rabbi Gordon Tucker this past week, we do Maimonides a disservice if we believe his rejection of miracles reflects merely a stick-in-the-mud rationalism. For Maimonides, moral agency itself is contingent on a belief in a causal, predictable, and determined order to the universe. To put it simply, if I believe that nature can be upended at any time by way of divine impulse, then why be moral? Actions have consequences; we must take responsibility for our choices. Ethics matter, and miracles – well, they are a fly in the theological ointment. While Maimonides did have to contend with certain inexplicable passages like the splitting of the Sea, for him a life of reason, a life of ethics, and a life of faith means rejecting miracles.
The debate between Nachmanides and Maimonides is well established in our tradition. It is the double helix – the DNA – of our people. We have our naturalists, our rationalists, our Maimonides and Mordecai Kaplans, whose worldview insists that everything fall within the natural order. We also have our mystics, those who see miracles in nature, people like our forefather Jacob, who go to sleep and wake up sensing God’s presence in every person and every place. For every prophet and saint, we also have our fair share of flatbed-driving rationalists.
Personally, I have a very hard time believing in miracles. My difficulty does not stem from some complex philosophical argument. My difficulty, in truth, is more pastoral than anything else. I have sat beside far too many deathbeds, heard too many prayers of the righteous go unanswered, and seen too many souls taken before their time. After all, the flip side and underbelly to a belief in miracles is the haunting question of why God would deliver miracles to some but not to others – giving one a clean biopsy report and not the other. And while the starting point and constant of my faith is that God is and will always be beyond my comprehension, I know what I know. And I know, historically, personally, and presently that there are far too many people suffering in this world, far too many people in desperate need of miracles, for me to believe in a God who would provide deliverance to some but withhold it from others. Like Maimonides, I still need to contend with the splitting of the Sea, but otherwise, “ha-olam k’minhago noheig, the world runs according to its natural order.”
And yet . . . twenty-plus years and a whole lot of funerals later, I can also share that my faith is fairly unchanged from that of that newly married, newly minted rabbi standing at the O’Hare Hilton that day. The eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, taught: “The world is full of wonder and miracles, but we take our little hand and cover our eyes and see nothing.” A life of faith is a deliberate choice, the decision to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, to look out at the world, at people, at the daily miracles of our lives and to cultivate a sense of what Heschel called “radical amazement.” One need not have a maximalist view of miracles to see the miraculous in this world. In fact, another great scholar of Judaism, Max Kadushin, coined the term “normal mysticism” to characterize the authentic nature of Jewish spirituality. It is a fascinating and thrilling way to see the project of mitzvot, of Jewish ritual life. Every time we say Barukh atah Adonai, Blessed are You Lord our God – over a piece of bread, over a cup of wine, over anything – we are taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary, bringing God into our everyday, seeing the miracles that abound everywhere and throughout our lives. We remove our hand and uncover our eyes and appreciate the wonders that has been there all along if we would only take notice.
And friends, let me tell you, if there has ever been a time that we need to appreciate what we have, to elevate the ordinary, and maybe even pray for the miraculous in the mundane, that time is now. None of us are hiking the Grand Canyon. None of us are sitting with our communities in song-filled sanctuaries. None of us are even able to welcome friends to our Shabbat tables. Our lives have been circumscribed in ways that preclude those expansions of the soul that may have defined our pre-COVID religious lives. Just before Shabbat, I had a painful exchange with a congregant about the sorrow of not even being able to say say Kaddish for a loved one in person in a minyan. The miracles I seek right now, the miracles I am praying for, are altogether modest. I pray for a return to normalcy. I pray for the hug of friend. I pray for the gesture of offering someone a taste of something yummy on my plate. I pray to run late for a midtown meeting due to traffic. I pray to see the look on my wife’s face when I come home for Shabbat dinner with unanticipated guests whom I picked up after services. I am not praying for big miracles right now. Small ones will do just fine. Frankly, I would take the miracle of boring if it were offered to me. But lacking even that, I will have to make do and just be sure to appreciate what I do have: the love and health of my family and the blessing of modeling and teaching a faith and tradition that is in more demand, not less, in these perilous times.
That, my friends, is what will be in my thoughts this Thursday night as I light the first candle of Hanukkah. No splitting of the Sea, no revelation at Mount Sinai. All I want for Hanukkah is the modest miracle that the reserve of oil within lasts just a little longer than we might think possible. That we are able to muster light in the midst of this very dark winter. That we cultivate our ability to appreciate the wondrous in the familiar, the divine in the dull, and the miraculous in the mundane. It is not much, but it is not nothing, and this Hanukkah, maybe, just maybe, we will all just get lucky, and it will prove to be enough.