Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh: Miracles spring from faith, quest for worthiness


It was called the Miracle on Ice. I remember watching the United States ice hockey team made up of scrappy and determined amateurs and college students defeat the Soviet Union in the Olympic semifinals.

It was 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y. The Soviet team had won almost every championship and Olympic tournament since 1954. Growing up near the Canadian border, we were able to see the game televised during regular time.

So, what IS a miracle? We gaze at a sunset and wonder whether anything is more breathtaking. We witness unconditional love between two human beings or the birth of a child and declare a miracle.

Turn to biblical sources: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the walls of Jericho crumbling down or, in the case of this week’s portion, a talking ass.

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Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh

Balaam, a renowned pagan prophet who possesses special powers, is hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. After a series of encounters, Balaam stands on the peak of a mountain overlooking the Israelite camp and declares, “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, Israel! … Blessed are they who bless you, cursed are those who curse you!”

Finding a way to view life through the lenses of blessings may be viewed as a miracle. Yet, the notion of miracles has always posed a perplexing dilemma.

Even the great scholar Moses Maimonides wrote: “A miracle cannot prove what is impossible; it is useful only to confirm what is possible.”

Baruch Spinoza posited: “Miracles only appear as something new because of man’s ignorance.

And in the Talmud, we learn: “In danger, one must not rely on a miracle.”

Rabbi Alexander Schindler eloquently paraphrased Maimonides’ thoughts on miracles when he said: “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 Haftarah portion, or reading from the prophets, is taken from Micah this week. It is probably familiar to most of you as Micah argues that the most important thing we can do is to “do justice and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.”

What does it mean to walk modestly with your God? Our tradition holds that we are partners with the Eternal One. As partners, our obligation to this relationship is to care for our world. This is through the process of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Allow me a story. A student once inquired of his rabbi why God endowed human beings with doubt. The pupil 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 God. For when a less fortunate person 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 or woman yourself!

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

Life is all about blessings, if only we actively seek them. That may be, in fact, the real miracle. A teaching from the Zohar, Jewish mysticism, states: “Blessings from above descend only where there is some substance, not just emptiness below.”

May our words, our actions and our faith in the possible be for blessing, and may our lives be filled with God’s presence and our eyes open to faith in the goodness of humanity, the possibilities within and the miracles around us.

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