We are told about a 10-year-old whose father was driving him home from religious school. The father asks, “So, what did you learn about today?”
The child responds: “The teacher told us about the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. They came to the Sea of Reeds and built pontoons and drove across the water. As soon as the Egyptians and their tanks were on the pontoons, the Israelites sent in their air force and bombed them.”
The father looks with surprise at his child. “Is that really what the teacher told you?”
The child once again responds with a smirk on his face: “Not really, but if I told you what the teacher really told us, you would never believe it!”
This story relates to our own sense of disbelief; the things that happened in the story of our redemption from Egypt couldn’t possibly have occurred in the way they did. The same can be said of the other miracles mentioned in our tradition and, in particular, the Hanukkah story, which we celebrated only a month ago.
How about modern examples? The most famous illustration may be when the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team beat the undefeated Soviets at Lake Placid. Announcer Al Michaels, as the game was coming to an end and victory was in sight, shouts, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
As a way of capturing this impressive moment in history, a few writers got together and made it into a movie, called Miracle. What makes this victory a miracle? What was it about that game that was so inspiring to this country that made us think of it as a miracle?
I guess what we should really do at this point is challenge our conventional understanding of a miracle. Is a miracle some supernatural event orchestrated by God? And along those lines, do we read the stories in our tradition literally?
The Hebrew language enlightens our understanding of a miracle. We can turn to the Hebrew word for miracle, nes. Rabbi and theologian Harold Schulweis argues that the authentic meaning behind the Hebrew word nes is “sign.” As he puts it in his work For Those Who Can’t Believe, “A miracle is an event that signifies something of ‘sign-ificance,’ something that makes an important difference in my life or in the life of my community…. The sign miracle does not refer to something beyond or contrary to logic or nature. It refers to events and experiences that take notice of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the wonder in the everyday, the marvel in the routine.”
The 20th-century philosopher and theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would walk into his class and open by saying, “I experienced a miracle today!” Rabbi Heschel paused for a few moments as his class would become puzzled and curious, and then say something along the lines of: “I saw the sun set.”
Rabbi Heschel follows in the tradition of our rabbis who believed that we often take the daily routines of life for granted. We fail to realize that these everyday occurrences — waking up in the morning, the sun rising and setting, and/or when human beings act in fellowship with one another — are indeed miracles. They are signs of God’s existence in nature and in every human being. They become significant when we decide to recognize them not just as ordinary things, but something divine, something miraculous.
When we sit down at our Passover seder tables to recount the story of our freedom, we do not focus on a literal reading of the story in our Torah. We do not examine these seemingly supernatural events.
We are instead highlighting the triumph of moral behavior over evil. We imagine ourselves as if we were freed as slaves from Egypt, so that we can do the same for others who have not experienced this moment. We create a miraculous moment, bringing them a redemptive moment, helping them to experience their humanity.
The exodus from Egypt was a miracle; it was a significant moment in our conceptualization of what our purpose is as the Jewish people. It reminds us that we are partners with God in bringing redemption to this broken world.
Realizing the miraculous in the world begins by waking up every day and thanking God for our health, for the beauty of nature, which leads us to a greater sense of purpose.
During this winter season, as we look forward to the rebirth of the spring and we learn the story of our redemption, may we enlighten our eyes to the miraculous in our world — an appreciation of the beauty of our earth and the dignity of every creature and human being. And may we be transformed to fulfill our mission as Jews to help those in need of their individual and collective redemption.