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Rosh Hashanah eve, Day 1 5774

Just a Miracle
Rabbi Philip Ohriner

The inimitable Walt Whitman once wrote:

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods…
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle…
Every spear of grass—the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles…

Of all our holidays, Rosh Hashanah teaches us to be open to the possibility of miracles. Tomorrow we will recall the story of our founding mother, Sarah imeinu, barren and in despair. God vows to grant her a child, even at her advanced age— a miraculous story. And let us not forget that Rosh Hashanah draws our attention to the most miraculous miracle of them all, the creation of the universe and the beginning of time.

From the period of the Talmud onward, Judaism developed a nuanced and rich approach to miracles. First, we are taught never to rely on miracles. The Talmud in Shabbat states that one should not put themselves in a dangerous situation and say, “a miracle will save me” because one might be saved, or not.[1] We are also taught that miracles never evidence religious truth.[2] We even find rabbis in the Talmud, and certainly later in Jewish history, uncomfortable with the abrogation of natural law as an explanation for the miraculous. But most importantly, Judaism teaches that every-day miracles are the greatest miracles of all. The Talmud exclaims the miracle of a community supporting a distressed family is far superior to the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the miracle of returning to health from illness is greater than the escape of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah from the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel.[3]

So this evening, I would like to share a story. One I believe paints the quintessential picture of miracles from a Jewish perspective.[4]

There once was a young prophet named Elijah who had just graduated from the school of prophets. Upon his ordination, to his parents great surprise and delight, Elijah moved out of the house and started off on his own, traveling through the countryside, looking for opportunities to exercise his trade. Elijah was in the miracle business. One day, Elijah came through a village and found there a woman who was very unhappy. “Why are you so unhappy?” he asked. “Because all of my friends are married, and I am not,” she answered in tears. “And how is it that a beautiful young woman like you is not married?” “Because I’m not beautiful,” she complained.  So Elijah reached into his bag and found a mirror. “Look into this mirror and you will be beautiful.” She looked, and indeed she seemed to herself beautiful. Therefore, she was beautiful. In short order she found a man who could see her beauty, and she was married. When she told the people of the village about Elijah and his mirror, they dismissed it. “It was just a self affirmation,” they said.

The next year Elijah returned to the village, and again he found the woman unhappy. “Why are you so unhappy now?” he asked. “Because I have no child. All of my friends have children, but my husband and I have no child.” Elijah reached into his bag and withdrew a small piece of parchment upon which was written a prayer. He told her to recite the prayer every morning and evening. Soon she became pregnant and had a son. When she told the people about Elijah and the prayer, they dismissed it. “It was just a relaxation exercise,” they said.

The following year, right around this time,  Elijah returned to the village, and again he found the woman unhappy. “Why are you so unhappy this time?” he asked. “Because my husband was laid off from work. We have no money and nothing to each.” “Nothing at all? Do you have anything in your refrigerator?” “Only one jar of olive oil,” she said. Elijah instructed her to fetch all of her buckets and barrels, and to borrow buckets and barrels from all of her neighbors. When she opened the one jar of oil, it poured and poured and filled all of the buckets and barrels. She and her husband went into the olive oil business and did well. When she told the people about Elijah and the jar of oil, they dismissed it. “It was just a jar of compressed oil,” they said.

For the third year in a row, as you might guess by now, Elijah returned to the village, and again he found the woman unhappy, unhappier than ever. “What is the matter now?” Elijah asked. “Our son is ill,” the woman cried. “He is close to death.” Elijah went into the house and found the son was not only ill, indeed he had died. He stretched himself on top of the young boy. And hen he stood, the boy stirred and came back to life. When the woman told the people about Elijah and her son, they dismissed it. “It was just CPR,” they said. Well, Elijah was fit to be tied. He had facilitated four perfectly good miracles, one to get her a husband, one to get her a child, one to get her a livelihood, and one to give life back to her son. All were good miracles, but the people of the village had dismissed them. “I’m going away,” he said, “and I won’t be back until people appreciate a good miracle when they see one.” With that he summoned a fiery chariot out of heaven. It landed on the village green. Elijah climbed aboard, smiled at the beautiful young woman and asked, “Do you know how to see a miracle?” When she seemed confused, he winked. “You do know. Just think about it.” Then, in sight of everyone, the chariot leaped into the sky. Now, what do you think the people of the village said when they saw that? Did they think it was a miracle? No. “It was just a special effect.”

For years, the young woman thought and thought about Elijah’s words. She had no idea how to see a miracle until, one day, it just popped into her head. What had Elijah said? “Just think about it.” It wasn’t the thinking. It was the word “just”! As soon as she grasped that, she was able to see miracles “just” everywhere. She became very wise. “The word ‘just’ puts blinders on you,” she taught, “so even though a miracle might be right there in front of you, you won’t be able to see it. You would see “just” this, or “just” that, but never look into the depth of anything. Your eyes would never open in wonder. That we open our eyes at all is a miracle. The word “just” can’t keep our eyes from seeing, but the word “just” can keep us from seeing the miracle of sight. “Every time you hear the word “just”, know that a miracle is on the other side of it.

Jewish tradition encourages us to view the world as being full of miracles and to embrace as a gift even that which we cognitively understand. Because, ultimately, our ability to see our world as one of wonder can guide us to a greater sense of thanksgiving and well-being. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that “as civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder in not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”[5]

As we enter into these days of Rosh Hashanah, mindful of the miracle of creation itself, let us resolve to be more open to the miraculous made manifest in our world and in our lives. Let us adopt the spiritual posture of the wise woman in our story, the sages of the Talmud, and Rabbi Heschel. And may we find ourselves aligned with the words of Whitman, “Why, who makes much of a miracle? As to me I know of nothing else but miracles…”.

On behalf of Shoshana, Ari, Eli, Kobi, and myself, we wish you a Shanah Tovah umetukah, a sweet and good new year! May it just be a year of health, joy, and inspiration for us all!

[1] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 32a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bave Metzia 59b

[3] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 118a, Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 41a

[4] The story is adapted a wonderful book entitled, The Curse of Blessings, written by Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz.

[5] A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man, p. 46