Openness to miracles includes those we create

By Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh

Do you believe in miracles? Have you ever gazed at a sunset and wondered whether there was anything more breathtaking and awesome? Is not the birth of a child or the love between two human souls also miraculous? 

And what about ancient miracles? The Sea of Reeds parting, the Walls of Jericho crumbling down or mere survival? 

These remain powerful examples of the faith our ancestors held in God. Even this week’s Torah portion, Chukat/Balack, refers to a talking donkey and intended curses turned into blessings.

How do our modern minds view these? Do miracles occur at a time when science and technology are exponentially increasing our knowledge and understanding of the universe? And what exactly IS a miracle? 

May I suggest that our lives are replete with small, unassuming miracles daily. Good health, the warmth and love of dear ones, and the ability to have faith in God as well as one another constitute miracles. These are everyday miracles. In an age of cynicism, looking at life through lenses of blessings is a miracle.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler (of blessed memory) eloquently paraphrased Maimonides’ thoughts on miracles:

“Miracles are not the things that awe us with the sense of the impossible. Miracles, rather, are those events that stretch our sense of the possible. Miracles are not transcendent, not otherworldly. They are simply the achievement of the people in this world who proceed in faith to deal with life not merely as a personal quest for happiness, but as a communal quest for worthiness.”

The late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson taught that miraculous behavior is merely an extension of human goodness. Miracles would be an extension of tikkun olam, of repairing the world. The rebbe would regularly distribute dollar bills so everyone could participate in tikkun olam. You no longer could exercise your excuses. 

The Haftarah portion is from the prophet Micah, who tells us that above all, what is most important is “to do justice, to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.” 

As God’s partners, it is our obligation to care for the world one soul at a time. Rabbi Schneerson saw within each of us the ability to perform a mitzvah, a daily miracle, and thus participate in the repair of our world.

A story I once heard: A student once inquired why God endowed human beings with doubt. The student quickly pointed out that skepticism leads us only to doubt our abilities and deny our faith. The rabbi replied that there are times when it is better not to have too much faith in the Almighty. For when a poor soul comes to you for help because he and his family are hungry, do not send him away with the assurance that God will perform some miracle for him. This is the time to use your doubt. Act independently. Help the man yourself!

All too often our charitable actions are delayed until much of the need has passed and the joy of giving largely diminished. I once read a cartoon that depicted two elderly women, in the middle of winter, draped in rags and shivering over a meager fire. One woman asked the other, “What are you thinking about?” She replied, “About the nice warm clothing people will give us next summer.”

A rabbi of the 16th century explained that if you want to raise a person from the mud and filth, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching down with an extended hand. You must go all the way down yourself. Down into the mud and filth. Then take hold with two strong hands and pull him and yourself out, into the light.

On Shabbat morning, many communities sing “Ma Tovu”: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. 

By opening our arms, hearts and gates, we shall continue to be a place that seeks justice, goodness, and walks humbly with our fellow human beings and with God. 

May our words, our actions, our faith be for a blessing, and may our lives be filled with God’s presence. May our eyes be open to the existing miracles and the ones we create.

Elizabeth Hersh is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.