Posted on October 10, 2023
By Rabbi Lisa Eiduson
On July 25, the New York Times reported, a woman named Peggy Jones and her husband Wendell, learned a lesson in a most usual way. They were home, doing yardwork in Silsbee, Texas, about 100 miles from Houston.
Suddenly, a snake fell from the clear blue sky and landed right on Peggy Jones’s arm.
The snake wrapped itself around her forearm and then squeezed it tightly. It hissed and lunged at her neck and face.
But then, Ms. Jones realized, the snake, was an unwitting victim, too.
Evidently, a brown-and-white hawk flying overhead had dropped the four-and-a-half-foot-long scaly creature from its beak. The snake tumbled from the hawk’s grip straight to Ms. Jones’ arm. The hawk, seeing it had lost its grip on the snake, then swooped down to reclaim its serpentine dinner from Ms. Jones’ arm.
The hawk snatched, scratched and jabbed at her arm in its attempt to get the snake back and fly away. Each time, its powerful talons slashed her forearm. On the fourth try, it successfully uncoiled the snake and flew away. Mrs. Jones’ arm was badly scratched, bruised and punctured.
At the hospital, she was bandaged and given antibiotics. Though physically recovering, she continues to suffer from the trauma of it all.
‘Still, Peggy Jones said, I consider myself to be the luckiest person alive….I was attacked first by snake and then by a hawk and I lived to tell about it.’”[i]
Who says miracles don’t happen anymore?
Actually, a study done a few years ago by the Pew Forum on Religion revealed that 80% of all Americans believe in miracles, including a surprisingly high number of millennials. Yes, our young adults in their twenties and thirties – our children and grandchildren – may not attend religious services or even affiliate with a particular religion – but overwhelmingly, they say that they believe in miracles.[ii]
Judaism has a complicated relationship with miracles. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with miracles that are said to come from a personal God that has the power to change the course of nature. The God of the Bible metes out punishment in the form of floods and fires and rewards good conduct by causing crops to grow. This God sends signs and wonders to reveal God-self to humanity. God provides water and Manna in the desert, helps the Children of Israel wage war against impossible enemies, and keeps our human bodies functioning. Throughout the centuries, some Jewish thinkers have seen miracles as perfectly with compatible with Judaism as supernatural mysteries that we cannot explain or understand. Others in Jewish circles have flatly denied miracles, clinging instead to uber-rational or scientific explanations. There are those who have even called miracles sacrilegious. Today, we have believers and non-believers and everything in between. Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says that “we live in an age of more miracles than ever before,” it is just that we don’t have a consistent definition of what a miracle is.[iii]
Miracles have traditionally competed with one another in religion and science. Yet times have changed and, for many today, science and religion are partners. In a 2020 article in Scientific American, Francis Collins, the then Director of the NIH – the National Institute of Health is interviewed. Dr. Collins is one of the most well-respected physicians and scientists in the country. He is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, and was the lead investigator of the Human Genome Project. He served the NIH from 2009-2021. An avowed atheist for most of his life, Collins became a devout Christian in 1978, and Collins sees science and religion in harmony with one another. He said: “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome… God can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory.”[iv]
Collins refuses to view science and religion in binary terms. And whereas Collins, the scientist, does not ever expect to ever see spontaneous healing as a medical doctor, he does consider the life-saving treatments and therapies that are being developed as miracles in their own right. These miracles emerge out of serious research, decades of work in labs, careful drug trials and novel experimental therapies. The point for Collins, the religionist, is less concerned about God and more interested in humanity’s role in miracles. He said: “We may understand a lot about biology, we may understand a lot about how to prevent illness, and we may understand the life span…”[v] But Collins maintains, true miracles happen when humanity uses our God-given free will to be kinder to one another and to the world. For Collins and perhaps for many of us, miracles happen when we pursue the road of progress, when we seize the opportunity to turn social ills into social justice. This is the Jewish view of miracles – one in which we are co-authors with God.
Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins points out that this particular understanding of miracles inspires us to look beyond the splitting of the sea or the sun standing still in the sky to miracles that are more “down to earth.”[vi] Miracles are the daily events that we see often but take for granted: the rising and setting of the sun, the working of our bodies, the extraordinary performance of our brains. Miracles are the everyday occurrences that make life holy. Albert Einstein once said: “There are only two ways to live our lives: one as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”[vii]
Once upon a time in Chelm, a village in Poland not far from Lublin, there lived some of the wisest fools this world has ever known. The people of Chelm often did silly things, but they loved their town and they loved each other.
The Chelmites also loved their moon. Every night they stood out on their front stoops and stared up at the sky, watching in wonder as their moon waxed and waned.
But once a month there came a night when the moon disappeared altogether. On those nights the people of Chelm frantically searched the dark sky. They felt lost.
One night, when the moon had vanished, the people lost their patience. “We love our moon!” they cried. “Why does it do this to us every month? Why does it go away?” The agreed: “The moon should stay with us.”
At last, one of the wisest of the wise began to smile. “I have an idea,” he said: “We’ll capture the moon.” “And once we have captured it, it shall be ours forever – full and radiant every night of the month. Month after month.”
They devised a plan. The people had noticed that each month, on the clearest night, the moon appeared for a visit to the town well. They thought that this was moon’s favorite spot to visit. This month, they decided, on the night the moon visited the well, they would gather round and secure a great cement cover over the well. In this way, they would capture the moon!
Everyone in Chelm agreed to the plan.
And so on the night when the moon was at its fullest, they hurried to the well, and gazed into the deep well, and there it was. They quietly lifted the cement cover and placed it on the well.
“We’ve caught the moon!” They celebrated.
The next morning, they gathered at the well to say hello to their dear friend, the moon.
But in the morning, the moon was gone!
“Someone has stolen the moon! Who is the thief?” they shouted.
They discovered that it was the rabbi! The rabbi stole the moon!
“Why?” The rabbi explained, to teach a lesson. Life is not something you grab and hold and own and control. We cannot catch miracles — or explain them or anticipate them. We are called to look at everything in life as a miracle — light and darkness, joy and sadness, fate and free will. Because truly we live in between these extremes. We dwell between this world and the world of our imagination and hopes. We must live between the reality we know and the dreams we will never surrender. There is joy and awe everywhere.”
The people of Chelm asked the rabbi, “So what do we do now? With no moon, we will be forced to live again in the space between celebration and despair, between light and darkness.”
The rabbi nodded knowingly. “Yes, as we have always lived. We will find our way as we always have. And in the meantime, we should not waste time trying to capture the moon that is far beyond our grasp. Rather, we should set our sights closer, contemplate life here and now on earth; the wonders are right before our eyes.”[viii]
The High Holy Days remind us that we are to live as if everything is a miracle. But we should not be smug. Jewish tradition is of one voice in warning us never to depend on miracles. We should not wait for or expect a miracle when we are in trouble. We are not to assume that God will appear through a miracle and save us; God cannot be counted upon to change the laws of nature or override the organic rhythm of time and space. In the Talmud, Taanit 20b Rabbi Yannai said: “A person should never stand in a place of danger and say: ‘A miracle will be performed for me!’” This is arrogance, hubris. Rather, miracles appear much more gently, within the context of life itself; as a means by which we come to appreciate the world and one another.
Gilah Langner writes that the root of the word miracle, in Spanish, is mira –to see. Meaning, miracles are all around us; we just need to remember to look for them.[ix] Moreover, we are catalysts for miracles. It is actually our role – we are chosen to be responsible for bringing miracles to the world. We create miracles when we bring water to countries plagued by drought; we create miracles when we use AI to promote medicine and healing; we create miracles when we use the middot of the Musar Movement to renew Torah and contemporary ethics. We bring miracles when we apply our ingenuity and creativity to the natural world and to see everyday life as miraculous. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the preeminent 19th century rabbi, believed the greatest miracle is the survival of the Jewish people in the face of a history of suffering and adversity.[x] David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, echoes Hirsch’s sentiments: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”
Once in a great while, someone survives despite a prognosis that only promises a few days or several months. From time to time, a spring is found in the desert, a new drug trial results in a cure, nature repairs itself. But typically, there is much less drama involved. Miracles are the tireless perseverance of search and rescue teams that bring families together who had been separated by war or natural disasters. Miracles are the remarkable focus and determination of first-responders as they rescue a drowning child from a sudden rip current. Miracles are years of research and development that lead to a prosthetic arm with a functional thumb capable of movement beyond our imagination. We do not wait for miracles. We do not pray for them either. Rather, it is our obligation as partners in Creation to bring the ideals of ethical monotheism into our world and to hasten miracles. To do everything in our power to make the world a sweeter, gentler place.
In the wake of the formidable wildfires this summer in Maui, the people of Lahaina began the process of surveying the destruction and slowly putting their lives back together. In addition to the burning of property and the enormous loss of human life, sadly, the city’s 150-year-old Banyan Fig tree – standing taller than 60 feet and covering a half-acre of land in the middle of the city – burst into flames. In the weeks following the fires, specialists have examined the tree. Some say it is just too charred to be able to continue to grow, while others look at the tree’s roots and see that they are still intact.[xi]
Just this week, there were new reports sent across the globe from the hundreds of conservationists and arborists who are tending to the giant Banyan tree day and night. The tree has begun to sprout leaves again, and some of the branches have grown. It is too early to know if the historic tree will survive. But actually, one group of environmentalists hypothesized that the Banyan tree may have been saved by two nearby monkey pod trees. “We believe two large monkey pods actually saved that banyan tree because when the monkey pods burned, the extreme heat from them rose way up high so that the fire was actually pushed over the top of the banyan tree, perhaps sparing it. The wooden benches beneath the tree didn’t even burn, the wooden light posts under the banyan tree are in perfect shape.”[xii] In addition to planting more native trees to replace those lost, there are plans to include two new monkey pod trees as well.
If a hawk can rescue a woman from a snake; and two monkey pod trees save the banyan tree from a wildfire….
Who says miracles don’t happen anymore?
[i] Che, C. (2023, August 9). A woman was attacked by a snake that fell from the sky. Then a hawk dived in. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/09/us/texas-woman-snake-hawk-sky.html
[ii] Conan, N. (Host). (2010, February 23). Do you believe in miracles? Most Americans do. [Audio podcast episode]. In Talk of the Nation. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124007551
[iii] Ask the Rabbis: Do Jews believe in miracles? (2020, Nov 12). Moment Magazine. https://momentmag.com/ask-the-rabbis-do-jews-believe-in-miracles/
[iv] Horgan, J. (2020, May 20). One of the world’s most powerful scientists believes in miracles. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/one-of-the-worlds-most-powerful-scientists-believes-in-miracles/
[vi] Ask the rabbis: Do Jews believe in miracles?
[vii] Elkins, D.P. (2006). Rosh Hashanah readings. Jewish Lights Publishing.
[viii] Feinstein, E. (2008). Capturing the moon: Classic and modern tales. Behrman House Publishing.
[ix] Ask the rabbis: Do Jews believe in miracles?
[x] Ask the rabbis: Do Jews believe in miracles?
[xi] Siler, J. F. (2023, August 14). Lahaina’s banyan tree stands, yet much Hawaiian history is gone. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/14/opinion/maui-fire-lahaina-banyan-tree.html
[xii] Adams, A. (2023, September 13). Lahaina’s beloved 150-year-old banyan tree sprouts new life following deadly maui wildfires. People. https://people.com/lahainas-beloved-150-year-old-banyan-tree-sprouts-new-life-7971692#:~:text=Arborists%20%E2%80%9Cindicate%20these%20are%20positive,Committee%2C%20told%20ABC%20affiliate%20KITV.