What is a miracle? I’ll offer a simple definition: a miracle is a supernatural event performed by God. In other words, when something happens that breaks the rules that we expect the world around us to obey, it is a miracle.
If I drop something—this book, for example—I expect that it will fall to the ground. All of my past experience in life tells me that this will happen. I would bet money on it. In fact, I would stake my life on it.
Why? Because I believe, with perfect faith, in the constancy of gravity.
If, when I let go of the book, it floats in the air, or flies away, that would be a supernatural event. It would violate the theory of gravity upon which I have risked my life. That would be a miracle.
In this example, I have just introduced two words which we typically associate with religion rather than science: faith and miracle. Faith, or emunah, as understood in Jewish tradition, is not how it is typically depicted in the wider society. When we use the word “faith” in English the focus is on the so-called believer. If I say, “Johnny believes in God,” most people would understand me to be saying something about Johnny and would probably make other assumptions about him. This is not the Jewish idea of faith.
In the Torah, the term emunah does not refer to the believer, but rather to the object of that belief. Emunah in God is better described as a sense of God’s constancy. God can be relied upon to have consistent qualities. When the Torah says in this morning’s reading vaya’amen ha’am—”And the people believed” (Ex. 4:31)—it is not saying that the Israelites think that God exists. Rather, the Torah is stating that the Israelites have accepted that God is going to do what God said, namely, bring them out of Egypt.
Emunah in Judaism is the acceptance of the constancy of something, whether it be a quality of God, the reliability of another person, or the authenticity of a prophet. That is why I feel comfortable saying that I have faith in the constancy of gravity.
If the book were to fly away, I would be faced with a dilemma. Either my faith in the constancy of gravity would fall apart, or I would find some way to explain my flying book does not actually violate the laws of gravity.
Or maybe I would just pretend that it never happened. Yeah. That’s probably what I would do.
Moses encounters the first miracle of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus. It occurs after he has fled from Egypt. He arrives in Midian, marries Tzipporah, and joins the household of her father, Yitro. One day, Moses is out in the wilderness with his father-in-law’s sheep when he notices something unusual, something which seems to violate the laws of nature in which Moses, you, and I all believe.He sees a bush that is on fire without being consumed. Moses immediately thinks to himself, “there is something wrong with this picture,” and he turns aside to investigate.
You or I would recognize immediately that a bush that burns without being consumed is a violation of the first law of thermodynamics. It contradicts the principle of the conservation of energy. Such a thing is not possible in this universe. That, by definition is a miracle. It is the equivalent of this book floating when I let go.
What would encountering such a miracle lead a person to do? Well, let’s look at Moses. The Burning Bush certainly gets his attention, “I’ve gotta check this out,” he tells himself. He approaches, and God’s voice calls out, “Moses, Moses!”
“I’m right here.”
“Stay there. Take off your shoes.”
I’m paraphrasing a little. By the way, that’s what I tell my kids when they walk into the house.
We hear nothing more about the Burning Bush. It turns out that the miracle was merely to get Moses’ attention. The real message is that God has decided to free the Israelites from slavery, and Moses is the guy who is going to bring the message. At this point, what response should we expect? Moses has seen a violation of the first law of thermodynamics. God just spoke to him. What should he say? Something like, “At your service. Just tell me what to do.” Instead, Moses offers a series of objections, beginning with “Who am I?” Then, “Who are You?” Followed by, “What if they don’t believe me?”
God, of course, has an answer to each one of Moses’ excuses. To establish Moses’ credibility with the Israelites, God offers him a few miracles to perform.
Miracle one. “Take your staff. Throw it on the ground and it will turn it into a snake. Then grab the snake by the tail and ‘poof!’ It will turn back into a staff.”
Miracle two. “Put your hand inside your shirt. When you pull it out, it will be covered with white snowy scales. Now put it back inside your shirt. When you pull it out again, your hand will be back to normal.”
Miracle three. “Take some water from the Nile River. Pour it on the ground and Voila! Blood. Gross.”
God assures Moses: “They’ll believe you after the first miracle. But if not, they’ll certainly believe you after the second miracle. But if not, the third miracle will surely do the trick.”
This is not super reassuring. But to be certain that Moses is convinced, God has him actually perform the first two miracles, right there on the mountainside. At this point, would you be convinced? Moses isn’t. “I don’t talk good. Please pick somebody else.” Moses does not seem to be very impressed by these miracles.
What about the Israelites? When Aaron and Moses go back to Egypt, they perform the miracles, as instructed. The Israelites believe… for a little while. As soon as Pharaoh increases the workload, their faith collapses and they turn on Moses and Aaron, cursing them. And who can blame them, really. Moses then starts complaining to God, again. So much for miracles.
Why are these supernatural suspensions of the laws of the universe so ineffective? Are Moses and the Israelites simply unfaithful and ungrateful? Not at all. They are human.
Maimonides, the great twelfth century rabbi, philosopher, and physician, offers an explanation as to why these miracles are so unconvincing. (Yesodei Torah 8:1) Whoever bases his or her belief on miraculous signs, Maimonides suggests, will always retain some doubt in their heart. Maybe it was just a trick performed through sorcery or witchcraft. We will find some way to explain away the miracle to preserve our worldview. Moses’ credibility is not established through miracles. After all, the Egyptian court magicians are able to replicate these opening miracles, as well as the first few plagues.
Maimonides continues. The only miracles that do instill some degree of faith in Moses’ leadership are those that come in response to some necessity. The Sea of Reeds divides so that the Israelites can escape Egypt, and it crashes back together in order to sink the pursuing Egyptian chariots. The manna is sent to prevent the Israelites’ starvation. The rock gives forth water to satisfy their thirst. The earth splits open to swallow Korach and his followers when they rebel. All of these miracles come in response to a crisis. The greatest of the miracles in the wilderness, however, is the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Israelites hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes the presence of God on the mountain, and witness the sound of God communicating with Moses face to face. It is not until that moment, says Maimonides, that the Israelites become fully committed to Moses.
Why then? What is needed to make them believe? Personal experience. That is the point that Maimonides is making. The mere witnessing of a supernatural event can only lead to a hollow faith. True faith emerges only from lived experiences. Trust in the wisdom and authenticity of another person only results when we have been through something together.
As I said before: I believe in the constancy of gravity. I don’t really understand gravity, mind you. But I have loads of experience with it. And I trust the really smart people, those who do, in fact, understand something about gravity, when they insist that it is real. I have so much faith in the constancy of gravity that I am willing to jump up in the air, believing with all of my heart that I am not going to go hurtling off into space.
Why do I trust the scientists who tell me that gravity is constant? Because of education. From a young age, I was taught that science is credible and important. Like all of you, I learned about the scientific method in grade school, and went through my share of biology, chemistry, and physics classes. That training instilled in me a trust in scientific study and an appreciation of those who dedicate their lives to it.
Religious belief is a bit trickier. As Jews, we are asked to accept the authenticity of Torah and the authority of those who interpret it. Life has meaning and purpose, and the Jewish people have a role to play in the redemption of the world. None of these can be demonstrated by a scientific proof or empirical evidence. I cannot prove to you that God exists, Moses lived, humans have souls, or even that there is such a thing as good and evil.
But we are not asked to merely believe blindly. The Jewish notion of emunah does not rely on miracles or proofs. It does not ask for leaps of faith. Emunah is developed over a lifetime and is built upon experience and community; on trust in each other and our shared experiences; on our common history and on the lessons passed down from parents to children.