I often receive questions about miracles but rarely answer them. This isn't because I don't believe in miracles — because I do — but rather because there are some things from God that don't lend themselves to easy, facile explanations. Some gifts from God need to be accepted in awesome silence and gratitude.
Also, some things we consider miracles are, in the words of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, "just the report of natural events by enthusiastic participants."
However, a dear friend of mine and a member of my congregation was recently the recipient of an unambiguous miracle.
Henry was dying of an aggressive brain tumor. He was at home in the care of hospice angels, family and friends. He was off all his meds and ready to go home. Suddenly, his latest MRI came back with the stunning news that the tumor had simply vanished. Doctors had no explanation about how or why this miracle (their word) had occurred.
I will share with you some of my thoughts on miracles that I shared with my congregation, and would love to hear about any miracles with which God has blessed you or those you love:
I don't expect the weekly Torah portion to be a newscast of contemporary events. The part of the Torah we read every Shabbat is, for me, a view into the eternal, not a report from the neighborhood. Yet, time after time, I have seen a message in the Torah verses, almost a prophecy, and certainly a divine commentary on what God is doing right now in our lives.
We read in Exodus 23:25 v'hasiroti mahalah mikirbecha: "And I will take away the sickness from within you."
I don't know if God was referring to Henry, but this week I think so. I don't say this often or lightly, but we have witnessed a miracle in our midst. Tonight we pray in grateful thanks for Henry's miracle.
There are so many questions about miracles that follow our joy. The responses to these questions, like the miracles themselves, come from God. They are responses, not answers, because these are unanswerable questions. They are mysteries, not problems.
As the philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote: "Problems are questions we constitute. Mysteries are questions within which we ourselves are constituted." ("The Mystery of Being")
So our spiritual task with miracles is not to answer the questions but to find a way to respond to the mystery. We must live our way through the questions into responses our lives can embrace.
The most spiritually unworthy question about miracles, the question of the cynics and of those of uncertain faith is: "Why was Henry chosen to receive a miracle this week and not all the millions of others still walking through the valley of the shadow of death? Why Henry?"
I received the following e-mail this week:
"Rabbi Gellman: Would you be able to say a prayer for Claire? Claire is the 12-week-old niece of a friend of ours who is suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia and needs our prayers. Thanks, in advance."
Why Henry and not Claire? The response to this question, is first off to pray for Claire. We pray that God might have a spare miracle for her.
Our next task is to simply pause and realize that if every prayer were answered, nothing would be a miracle. A miracle is an expected intrusion into Natural Law, or an unexpected gift during a time of desperate waiting. If our every prayer for life canceled the arrival of the Angel of Death, then death, our inescapable destiny, would never come. Those we love would never die. Those who are ill would never languish. Every day would be sunny. Natural Law would no longer be law, and we would live forever.
The consequence of this understandable but childlike fantasy would be that no children would ever be born to replace us, no medicines ever be invented to heal us, and we would never need to develop courage to face life's trials and tribulations.
Miracles need to be rare, or their power would evaporate into our unlimited spiritual neediness. The rabbis taught, ain somhin al ha nes: "do not rely on miracles." We must work to support the work of science as if there is no God, and we must trust in God as if there is no science.
The shortest Psalm, No. 131, and my favorite, gives us a luminous version of this humble response:
"A Song of Ascents; of David. LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in things too great, or in things too wonderful for me. Surely I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with his mother; my soul is with me like a weaned child. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forever."
The Psalmist specifically teaches us that God wants us to be like a weaned child, not like a nursing child. A weaned child is prepared to live in a world where mothers are present but mother's milk is no longer available. We must be humble and trusting and hopeful. We cannot be demanding of God's hesed, God's grace. We must be simply grateful when it comes, and not feel betrayed when it does not come in time.
German theologian Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) wrote: "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is 'thank you,' it will be enough." Therefore, the spiritually mature response to miracles is not "Why not others?" but simply, "Thank you." Thank you leads to a faith based on trust. Why not others? leads to a faith constantly hobbled by spiritually debilitating petitions.
Trust is not exactly belief, though it is in part based on belief. Trust is hope, and hope does not arise from believing something or other about God. Hope comes from trusting that God is with us in every circumstance of our life and our death and our life that begins after death.
How can we achieve a faith based upon trust? I can't say for sure, but for now it may be enough to say that miracles come to those who wait upon the Lord in patience, courage and trust. Why they don't come to all who wait is not only an unanswerable question but the wrong one because it implies that the miracles we can see are somehow not enough. The question of "Why not others?" actually prevents us from seeing the miracles around us every day.
There's a wonderful rabbinic legend about how some of those who walked through the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea did not see the miracle at all. How could this be? asked the rabbis, and they answered, "Because they never looked up and so all they saw that day was mud." The only way to see miracles is to look up. We must look up from our daily complaining, from our prayers that include a thousand petitions for each grudging thank you to God.
Our lives, our breath, our friends our community our nation are all miracles. Every day we awaken to eat breakfast and shovel the snow and go to work and come home and shovel the snow. Each day is filled with miracles. Each day, we must not just say but actually believe, "Today, as every day, my blessings exceed my burdens."
Henry's miracle also must remind us that doctors don't know everything. Karen Armstrong and Steven Gould have written that religion and science are non-overlapping magesteria, that they have, "different spheres of competence."
Armstrong insists that religion's task has always been and should continue to be "to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there (are) no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: morality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life."
William Saroyan wrote in "The Human Comedy": "Doctors don't know everything really. They understand matter, not spirit. And you and I live in the spirit."
And we live in the spirit by caring for those we love. Care comes from the Gothic word Kara which means "to grieve, experience sorrow and to cry out with." And God heard Henry's cries and his family's cries and our cries and God answered them this week. That is all we know and that is all we need to know.
The philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade called the phenomena that confirm the reality of God, hierophanies. Henry is for me this week's hierophany. I often speak with people who have lost or have never discovered faith and they often say to me that if I could show them a miracle they would believe. Now all I have to do is give them Henry's phone number. Thanks to your miracle, Henry, your life and my job have become a lot easier this week.
The dreidels in Israel are different than the dreidels in the diaspora. Here the dreidels say nun, gimel, hey, shin, the first letters of the phrase, "Nes gadol haya sham" a great miracle happened there. Israeli dreidels are imprinted with the letters, nun, gimel, hey, phey. nes gadol haha po, "a great miracle happened here," and let us say to that, Amen.
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