Sunday, May 9, 2010

Recognizing the Miracle

We all love stories about miracles--not just the parting-of-the-Red-Sea kind of miracles. We love the modern-day miracle stories: the mother who miraculously finds the strength to lift the car to free her child. The miracle cures to seemingly incurable diseases. We love stories of miraculous human perseverance and survival against all odds; the Jewish modern-day miracle in the creation and survival of the State of Israel. Each story gives us pause in the midst of our busy, distracted lives to remember that there may indeed be a dimension of something beyond our ken at work in the world. If I were to go around the room right now, almost every one of us could recount a story of a miracle that we personally experienced in our lives. We might have our doubts, but there’s something tantalizing and renewing in these stories that is irresistible. But, of course, there is also the skeptic in each of us who then notices that there are plenty of times in history and in our lives where a miracle would have been nice, but it never came. What about those people who never got their miracles? How could Judaism be a religion that affirms miracles when, in our daily experience, miracles seem to be the exception, rather than the rule?

There’s a story told about Reb Shalom of Belz, who lived in the early 19th century. A woman came to him who was in a desperate situation, in dire need of help. “I have done all I can do in this matter, Rebbe,” she said, “If I am to succeed and survive, it will be only because of God’s aid, and I can only get that with your aid. Please, Rebbe, pray to God on my behalf!” The rebbe refused, saying, “The essential thing, good woman, is to have faith.” The woman was shocked. She was a good and decent person and one in true need. There could be no good reason for the rebbe to turn down her plea for help. Taking a deep breath, the woman said, “Far be it from me to argue with my rebbe…”

“But you will do so anyway?” Reb Shalom barked. “Do you think you know this situation better than I?” “I am not a learned woman,” she replied evenly, “but I do know a bit of Torah. When our ancestors were about to be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s army at the shores of the Red Sea, Torah first says that God ‘saved’ them and only later said that they believed in God. Their salvation preceded their faith. I am no different. If God would save me now in this situation, I will without doubt have faith as well.” “What is this?!” Reb Shalom yelled. “An illiterate woman seeks to teach me Torah? No one has ever bested me in Torah study!” The woman stood and waited, neither arguing her point not turning to leave. Suddenly the rebbe’s face broke into a great smile. He laughed loudly and said “No one, that is, until now!” No one, that is , but you” The rebbe prayed for the woman’s welfare, and God granted all she needed. [i]

It’s an interesting little story about faith and miracles, where the Rebbe is reminded that we need miracles, however infrequently, to help us to have faith. What’s interesting about this story is, why didn’t the rebbe realize that at first? What did he mean when he first told the woman to have faith? There’s an implicit and shocking message hidden in this story—that if only that woman had real faith, the rebbe wouldn’t need to order up a miracle for her in the first place! That somehow, the miracle would come by force of her faith!

Another story: Reb Meir was a Hasid of Reb Mordechai of Lechovitch. He was also the occasional business partner of Reb Gershon, who was a devout Misnaged—he hated the Hasidim and their radical teachings. Reb Meir was always inviting his misnaged friend to join him on his many visits to his rebbe, but Reb Gershon’s hatred of Hasidism was so strong that he could never consent to visiting his partners rebbe. Not wishing to hurt the feelings of his friend, he would find many reasons to explain why travel to Levhovitch was out of the question. It once happened, however, that separate business matters brought both men to Lechovitch on the same day. Discovering that his friend would be in town at the same time as himself, Reb Meir once again invited Reb Gershon to visit his rebbe. Seeing no way out that would not be offensive to Reb Meir, Reb Gershon agreed.

When the two men arrived at Reb Mordechai’s house, they were ushered into the rebbe’s dining room, where he was just beginning to eat his dinner. Reb Meir urged his friend to speak to the rebbe, to ask a question, to say something, but Reb Gershon—the cranky Hasid-hater-- was suddenly in a state of pure ecstasy, and he couldn’t even speak as he stared at the rebbe. After a few minutes, they left the rebbe’s house. Reb Meir said to his friend, “What just happened to you in there?” Reb Gershon said, “I saw the rebbe eating with the holiness of the Kohen Gadol [the ancient High Priest of all Israel]!” Shocked, Reb Meir turned from his friend and ran back into the house to his rebbe. When he arrived he said, “Rebbe, here I come to see you as often as I can, and never have I seen the way you serve the Holy One, Blessed Be He. And yet my misnaged friend comes for a minute, under duress, and he sees the miracle of your eating. Is this fair?”

The rebbe said, “It is not about fairness, my friend. Your friend is a misnaged; he has to see the Truth with his own eyes. You, on the other hand, are a Hasid; you have to trust.”[ii]

Most of us in this room right now are like that misnaged—that doubter. Most of us live our lives doubting and not seeing miracles happening around us. But every once in a while, we just may see something that knocks us for a loop—something that hits us over the head and reminds us that there’s something more to life than meets the eye. And we call that a ‘miracle.’ But the rebbe reminded his Hasid that he is called to something higher—to something we call ‘bitachon,’ ‘Trust:” to trusting every day and every moment of life that the miraculous is there even if we can’t see it!

There’s a strange line in Parashat Behar in the Torah. God commands that the seventh year be a “shvi’it” year: a year where we give the land a rest and let our fields in the Land of Israel lie fallow. And the Israelites should live without working the soil at all. “But if you should ask,” says the Torah, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather our crops? V’tziviti et birkati—And I shall command my blessing,”[iii] so that your yield of crops in the sixth year will be triple its regular amount, so you’ll have the miracle of plenty of food to carry you through the sabbatical year. The Sfat Emet comments that it’s a seemingly strange question for the Israelites to ask: “What shall we eat?” Shouldn’t they have faith in God without having to ask God for the miracle? Well, explains the Sfat Emet, it’s not that they didn’t trust God--not at all. In fact, the Israelites of that generation were so close to God that it seemed perfectly natural for them to ask, and to expect what we would call a miracle of God’s extra blessing of food. Indeed, he explains, for the Israelites, their faith in God was so strong “Haya shaveh lahem hatevah vehanisim,”[iv] “That nature and miracles were the same [for them],” In other words, they trusted so deeply that everything in nature around them was a miracle, that even the experience of the so-called miraculous and supernatural was for them just another part of daily lived life.

This is the same message the rebbe was communicating to his Hasid: there’s a level of living life where the whole idea of miracles as separate and apart from daily life breaks down. There’s a way of living life where you don’t need to see a miracle to have faith. There’s a way of living life where there are no more individual miracles, because life itself—moment to moment—is nothing but miraculous! There’s a way of living life where you need only ask for the miraculous as easily and effortlessly as you expect the mundane, and notice that the miracle is right here, right now arising before you!

But how do we get to that level of living life?...

In the Talmud, Rav Yosef tells us a story: Once, there were two men who started out on a journey together to engage in business dealings. At one point in the journey, one of the men got an injury and he was prevented from accompanying his fellow on a boat to reach their destination. Naturally, the man with the injury cried out in anguish and was enraged at God for this terrible misfortune. But then, what happened? Sometime later, word got back to the injured man that the boat with his friend on it had sunk at sea, and all onboard were killed. All at once, the injured man was eternally grateful to God for the miracle of his injury! From this story, Rav Yosef teaches, “Afilu ba’al haNes aino maker b’niso,” “Even the one who has a miracle happen to him does not recognize his own miracle.”[v]

That injured business traveler, that desperate woman, that cranky misnaged, and you and I—we’re all the people who don’t recognize our own miracles. We go through life, and sometimes amazing experiences give us faith, but as soon as misfortune and illness and injury befall us, we curse God, we doubt, we lose faith itself in life, in goodness, in God. We gather up all of life’s misfortunes as our litany of proof that the miraculous experiences of life are few and far between. But there are those few amazing teachers—the Hasidic rebbes, the Talmudic rabbis—who call on us to ask ourselves the question: Isn’t Life itself—all of it--miraculous, after all? Look deeply at every loss you have known in your life: would you really do it differently if it meant losing the blessings, the goodness, the love that you have here and now? The message of Torah is that this Reality that you and I find ourselves in here and now is the best possible reality, and therefore, everything, even our misfortunes needed to have been just the way they were, and couldn’t have been different—and therefore, all of it—the good and the bad—it’s all part of the miracle itself. This is the deepest kind of faith there is in Judaism: bitachon, Trust that everything is a miracle, even when we can’t see it, even when we can’t feel, even when the whole world feels like it’s crashing down on us and betraying us—we are called on, as the Jewish people, to Trust, to find that deepest and often most hidden place of peace in our heart of hearts that knows—that miraculously KNOWS—that even this is a miracle! May we find that Trust within ourselves. May that this place of Trust within us IS our deepest Truth—and may the miracle of our lives transform our hearts, and transform the world.



[i] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales. Woodstock, VT.Skylight Illuminations, 2004. p. 57.

[ii] Ibid, p. 77.

[iii] Leviticus 25:20

[iv] Sfat Emet 3:190

[v] Talmud Bavli, Nidah 31a

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