It would appear that there are two definitions of miracles: that of the theist and the other of the atheist.
The theist claims that a miracle is “an extraordinary event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency.” The atheist claims that it is, at best, “a remarkable event or development that brings very welcome consequences.”
As a believer, I don’t even agree with the first definition. Miracles, I believe, are more dependent on the timing of an event than on the intrinsic ‘miraculous’ nature of the event. When lightening strikes a person, it’s a freak of nature. However, if that person happens to be mugging someone at the time, it becomes a miracle. Had the offender been struck the day before or after the episode, would the miracle have been noted or even considered? Surely the intrinsic event is identical?
But perhaps what I find more perplexing is whether the concept of miracles necessitates that it be beneficial. In other words, in the example above, I understand that the innocent victim views his mugger having been struck by lightning as miraculous, but does the mugger feel the same way? Does he see the thwarting of his devilish plan as a miracle?
If the agreed definition of a miracle is that it’s an event that cannot be explained by natural laws, should it matter on which side of the equation one finds themselves?
The word ‘miracle’ may connote positive events, but should it? Surely the hand of the divine should be cognisant in both the negative as well as the positive. Perhaps the problem is that we like to think that God is on our side, when sometimes He isn’t.
Throughout Jewish history, the miracle was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself or as proof of Divinity. Positive miracles provided us with salvation at times of despair, nourishment at times of hunger and thirst, and victory when faced with defeat. But ‘negative’ miracles also have their value. They can teach moral lessons to stubborn students. They can force unity when a community insists on being divided. They can ensure that we focus on that which is valuable rather than trivial.
Miracles are messages. They instil in us a sense that our lives matter to God and that we need to listen to His messages. My late Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, once shared a story with me regarding a young man who visited him. The man told him that he didn’t need to live an observant lifestyle because he and God had a close relationship. The man told that he was once riding a motorcycle through the Catskill Mountains along a winding road. Suddenly a truck came in the opposite direction. He veered off the road and off a high cliff. Letting his motorcycle tumble down and crash, he was able to grab a branch and remain there until help arrived.
“As I was flying through the sky, I thought that I was finished, but God saved me. I knew from that point on that God and I shared a bond that didn’t require me to be observant.”
Rav Noach replied: “Who do you think threw you off the mountain in the first place?”