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On Miracles - First Parish, Concord MA 3/28/2010 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe  


On Miracles - First Parish, Concord MA 3/28/2010 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe

I am absolutely delighted to be here this morning, and to be in the presence of this wonderful congregation.  I am particularly pleased to be invited to be with you by my friend, and your extraordinary pastor, Gary Smith.  You know him as the man of exceptional intellect, integrity, dynamism, intelligence, and leadership that he is.  I know him as my travel buddy.  As Gary mentioned, he and I traveled to Israel about a year and half ago about 15 other local area clergy.  I have been to Israel many times before that, and in fact, be heading back again in a few weeks the group from Temple Isaiah, but that trip stands out from all others not so much for the itinerary, which was indeed different than any other I have ever experienced, but because of the way that I saw Israel, through the eyes, or at least accompanied by the eyes of others, who were experiencing the land, its people, and the history that permeates not only the entire physical, but also the metaphysical environment.  Of course, we all came from communities whose religious outlooks are quite different from one another, adding both to the richness, and at times, to the challenges, of our experience.  Because we represent different religious traditions, it was important to be open to one another, and learn from one another, and all of us did just that.

It is, of course, in that spirit, that I have been invited here today.  I am humbled by this opportunity, and offer our thanks to Gary, and to you, as a congregation, for this invitation.

It is no coincidence that Passover and Easter fall so close to one another, and perhaps no coincidence that both provide the master narratives for the religious communities that celebrate them.  And if you would, please keep that word, coincidence, in mind.  And with that, I have already given you some indication of how I understand the concept of miracles.  Both Passover and Easter are founded on stories of extraordinary miracles, and the way in which each religious community has understood those miracle stories has defined much of who each of us are.  I am going to limit my remarks to the Jewish experience, but I know that there are Christians whose approach to the understanding and meaning of miracles is quite similar, and in both cases have to do with that word that I asked you to keep in mind: coincidence.  I use the word coincidence cautiously, because it is easy to hear it and take it to a one of two extremes: mere coincidence, which we say when we want to dismiss concurrent events whose simultaneous timing we deem meaningless; and at the other extreme, extraordinary coincidence, completely meaningful, and perhaps cosmically intentional concurrent events, as exemplified by the teaching of Arthur Koestler and Carl Jung.  While I confess to at least occasionally standing at either of these extremes at different times, the sense of miracle that I wish to convey this morning lies between these two poles and simultaneously transcends them.

Let me mention a small coincidence, just big enough to be noteworthy: as Gary mentioned, I began my work as a rabbi in Minneapolis. I have to wonder how often the music of your service includes pieces by composers from Minnesota, where I first began my career as a rabbi. I cannot imagine that anyone here would have known that amongst the other items on his resume, Mark Sedio whose piece, Thy Holy Wings, was played during the offertory, one would find mention of his work in the 1980s as organist of Temple Israel of Minneapolis, during my tenure there. A coincidence, to be sure. Not a very meaningful one, but a coincidence nonetheless. And because it is not particularly meaningful,  I doubt that anyone would consider this a miracle. It is unlikely that this coincidence makes any material difference in anyone's life. And it turns out that it is indeed more meaningful, we can reclassify it as a miracle later. Right now though, it helps to recognize that one of the standards of what makes a miracle is how much meaning, and what kind of difference, it makes.

For me, then, a miracle is a positive, meaningful occurrence that, if one stretches far enough, is imaginable, but so unlikely as to reach past the realm of the implausible, beyond the improbable, and touch the edges of the impossible.  There is, of course, the more common, supernatural definition of a miracle:  an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs. I would submit, however, that we need not understand miracles in this way.

Let me share an example from the Passover Seder. Tomorrow night, Jews around the world will be sitting down to tell the story of the Exodus and the miracles that made it possible.

Consider, for a moment, the story of the crossing of the Red Sea:

I have heard from any number of people over the years who share this story as an example of why they reject the entire Torah. I do not blame them.  If embracing the supernatural idea of the story meant the suspension of my intellectual faculties, I would have to find something else to do for a living.  No, I look to Scripture and other religious texts for inspiration, not as a literal record of human history, and I would suspect that you do, too.  For me, the most powerful inspiration is derived from understanding what the Israelites experienced, how it was that that this was a miracle to them, and how this became the defining moment, the defining miracle of my people's narrative.

Consider that the name, Red Sea, bears no relation to the Hebrew name, Yam Suf, which probably means either Reed Sea or Sea of Reeds - one of the”e’s” dropped out along the way -  or End Sea, as in "at the end of the known world".  Amongst those who believe that this event or one similar to it actually occurred, there is disagreement as to whether the body of water that was crossed is the one that we currently know as the Red Sea, or if it was one of the numerous lakes just to the north, many of which were, and some still are, reedy and marshy.  If that was the case, it would not all be difficult to imagine the Israelites arriving at the water at a shallow point, able to walk across almost as if on land - remember, they had never previously experienced any body of water other  than the Nile -- followed some unspecified time later by the chariot riding Egyptians.  It does not take much imagination to picture their wheels locking and freezing in the reeds, the horses falling over into the water, followed by the riders.  Imagine being one of the Israelites, enslaved for 430 years, standing on the far shores of the water, and seeing this unfold.  The words of Exodus chapter 15 come alive in a different way :  "I will sing to the Eternal  one, for God has triumphed gloriously;   horse and rider God has  hurled into the sea." So unlikely as to border on the impossible, so meaningful as to change the course of human history. For them, a miracle.

What makes an occurrence a miracle is that we experience it as a miracle.

Can you imagine experiencing a miracle but not recognizing it?

Stay with me for a moment.

It is worth knowing that there is entire genre Jewish literature known as midrash.  The word comes from the root meaning to explore and to explain, and refers to stories and narratives that comment on, explore, explain that embellish the biblical stories that we already know.  They often fill in the gaps, or pick up where the text leaves off.  A midrash always presents a new layer and a new way of looking at Scriptures we already know.

One famous midrash relates to the story of the Exodus.  My colleague, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, paraphrases it thus:   Apparently, the bottom of the Red Sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. 'What is this muck?' Shimon scowled, 'There's mud all over the place!' 'This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!' replied Reuven. 'What's the difference?' complained Shimon. 'Mud here, mud there; it's all the same.' 

"And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. And because they never once looked up, they never understood why, on the distant shore, everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon, the miracle never happened"
 Of course, none of us can relate to that story.  
Do you remember the words of the prayer we read a few minutes ago (from the Gates of Prayer):  "Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. "  
How often do we walk through the middle of miracles, and only notice the mud?
Holidays like Passover give us the opportunity to remind ourselves of the miracles that surround us by focusing on the larger miracles that define our lives.
 
There is a danger, though, to blinding ourselves to the fact that some miracles come with a cost to others.  We like to think of miracles as  positive sum equations, where no one wins at anyone else's expense.  Sometimes that is true.  Not always. Sometimes there are costs. Those costs may be absolutely worth it, may be absolutely righteous, may be absolutely unavoidable, but are costs nonetheless.  Let's come back to the Passover story after a few other examples.
 
Minor example: We were all reminded during the Winter Olympics of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" when the United States hockey team defeated the Soviet Union.  I wonder how many Soviets thought of that game as a miracle.  I suspect none of us really thought too much about how the Soviets felt, and that is probably okay.
Let us take a look at a somewhat more significant example: a person in need of a heart transplant who discovers that she got one one at the last minute only because the person above are on the list died before receiving it.  How can she completely celebrate the miracle of her life without remembering the person who did not make it? And what of the otherwise healthy person whose tragic, fatal accident made that heart available? How can she celebrate her life without remembering the donor?
And yes, there is our story of the 10 plagues and the Red Sea.  Like many other miracles, these, too did not come without a cost.  In this case, it was the lives of the Egyptian soldiers, and before that, untold numbers of other Egyptians.
How can we embrace those miracles and maintain our humanity?
 
According to one particular midrash, when the Israelites reached the other side of the sea and broke into song, the Angels begin to do the same.  God immediately silenced them, and they questioned why the Israelites were not similarly silenced.  God's response was that they were human beings, whose own lives and whose own freedom was dependent upon what just happened.  But God was simultaneously weeping over the deaths of the Egyptians, and demanded that the Angels not rejoice while God's creations perished.  By telling that story when we tell the story of the crossing of the sea, we celebrate the miracle, and maintain our humanity.
 
If you have ever attended a Passover Seder, you know that, at the reading of the 10 plagues, it is customary to reduce the wine in our cups by a single drop with the recitation of each plague, so that that our cup is lessened when we remember the suffering of the Egyptians.  We celebrate the miracle, and maintain our humanity. 
And so, miracles become more than a matter of experience.  They become the basis for living our lives with greater purpose and meaning.
One of the great misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of Jewish tradition is that it is legalistic, that observance is about obedience.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great teachers of the 20th century, taught that the whole purpose of religious observance is not obedience, but about developing spiritual sensitivity.  He used to the term "radical amazement" to describe the approach that he encouraged all of us to embrace - at the risk of oversimplification, to be so in awe of the world and its creator that we cannot help but do our part to make it the best it can be.  
Now, would that not be the greatest miracle of all?