Miracles ain’t what they used to be – if they ever were

“Do you believe in miracles?” – Al Michaels, 1980

The term “miracle” is used in so many commonplace ways that it is little more than a catchphrase, an advertising slogan for a photocopier, or the title of hundreds of mundane or cliched pop songs. One song I surveyed in my research attempted to rhyme miracle with spiritual and visible.

In the Jewish world, Hanukkah sparks popular use of the Hebrew word for miracle, “nes.” Everyone who has ever spun a dreidl has seen the letter Nun on one of its four sides, part of the mnemonic for, “Nes gadol hayah sham” (A great miracle happened there) in the Diaspora, with “po” (here) replacing “sham” (there) in Israel. Despite its ubiquity at Hanukkah, and the word’s contemporary Hebrew meaning of instant coffee (“Nes”-café), I prefer to reserve the term “miracle” for special events and ones with Divine involvement. The question, of course, is when one can tell an event is a miracle.

The great medieval thinkers Nachmanides and Maimonides, often referred to as the RaMBaN and the RaMBaM, disagreed on when and where miracles occurred and what they showed about the nature of God. In short, and here I am paraphrasing Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, the Ramban says God has the power and the will to operate independently of the world’s structure and patterns. This view encourages Jews to feel free from the orderly designs of nature. For Nachmanides, the Exodus from Egypt shows God’s ability to transform the world in order to fulfill God’s promises to the Israelites.

The rapper and singer Matisyahu, who went through a religious phase sparked by Chabad, could be said to have represented the Nachmanidean point of view in his 2010 song, “Miracle.”

Bound to stumble and fall but my strength comes not from man at all
Do you believe in miracles
And am I hearin’ you
Said am I seein’ you
Said eight nights and eight lights
End these fights, keep me right
And bless me to the highest heights with your miracles

Matisyahu is trusting in God to give him strength and refers to Hanukkah’s eight nights – the song was released on a holiday season EP – as evidence that miracles come from God and are desired by humans.

The Rambam, on the other hand, says God is revealed in the regularities of nature, not its irregularities (i.e., its miracles). God willfully limits God’s own powers, to empower people to elaborate on and expand the Torah. In a famous midrash, one prominent rabbi says that “we pay no attention to a heavenly voice,” because God gave the Torah at Sinai. In attempting to counter that point, another rabbi consults the prophet Elijah, who answers that God laughed upon hearing the statement. “My sons have defeated me,” Elijah quotes God as saying. In other words, the Torah is not in Heaven, but in human hands – for better or worse.

Now that I’ve had the gumption to associate a rapper with a sage, let me once more exhibit hubris by describing Leonard Cohen as a Maimonidean. His 1992 song, “Waiting for the Miracle,” co-written with Sharon Robinson, turns the title on its head.

The sands of time were falling
From your fingers and your thumb
And you were waiting
For the miracle, for the miracle to come

Ah baby, let’s get married
We’ve been alone too long
Let’s be alone together
Let’s see if we’re that strong
Yeah let’s do something crazy,
Something absolutely wrong
While we’re waiting
For the miracle, for the miracle to come

The singer is tired of waiting for a miracle and proposes action – however crazy it may be. He wants to act, to take his beloved into his arms.

Not only have these differing views on miracles run as themes in Jewish thinking throughout our history, they add to the difficulty we face in identifying these events when they occur. Can we, in fact, see a miracle when it is in front of us? Or do we understand events as miraculous only in retrospect?

Were the eight days of light from one day’s worth of oil in the rededicated Temple a miracle? The rabbis of the Talmud, removed from the event by only a few hundred years, downplayed the miracle of the oil. Perhaps it was because the chances for Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Israel were slim to none in their era. Or perhaps they were too close to the event to see it as a miracle.

The Torah bursts into rare song in “Shirat Hayam” (Song of the Sea) after the Israelites complete their “miraculous” trek across the divided Sea of Reeds. The “song,” far better than today’s pop tunes about miracles, is one of only two Torah sections written in poetic stanzas. It is so central to Jewish thought and belief that it is repeated in daily prayer services  in melodies ranging from Israeli pop, to Moroccan, to Yemenite, Kurdish, among many others.

One perhaps must accept that the Torah was written long after this event passed into folk memory to account for why it is so widely canonized as a “miracle.” I prefer to look at Godly interventions in the natural world as events in the mythic past as a way to keep “nessim” (miracles) at the exalted heights they deserve.

I don’t care to devalue the term by crediting them to contemporary occurrences. When people talk about the “miracle” that someone missed being hit by a terrorist attack, because they were slow in arriving to an event, I immediately think about those killed in the attack. To people who speak of such miracles, I say, Why weren’t the others spared?

These thinkers don’t let the harsh facts of life disturb their need to feel that there is divine – even miraculous – guidance in their lives, to quote David Hartman once again: “In this worldview, the conditions of the world are not interesting; what’s interesting is the break in the ordered framework of the world.”

What’s interesting and important to me is the condition of our world and how we act in it.

Therefore, to answer Al Michaels’ iconic question – uttered at the moment an underdog USA hockey team defeated the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics – I say that I believe in the miracles we create through our kindness, our goodness, and our hard work. To quote the non-Jewish sages Bob Weir and John Barlow, in this world, “I need a miracle every day.”

(This post was originally commissioned by Yoni Goldstein, editor of Canadian Jewish News for its Hanukkah 2018 special section.)

About the Author
Alan D. Abbey is media director of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He lives in Jerusalem.