2388 What are Miracles?



Scriptural literature describes many miraculous events such as staffs turning into snakes, water turning to blood, strange plagues, animals that speak, leprosy that comes instantly and departs just as quickly, the sun standing still, or being swallowed by a fish and regurgitated days later alive and whole.

The Talmud has its share of miracles as well: killing with a glance, resurrecting the dead, battling with demons, invoking divine spirits, teleportation from one city to another in a matter of minutes, visiting heavenly or demonic realms while still alive, incredible healings, assuring pregnancy in previously barren women, and potions that cast spells.

Miracles also play a role in the history of most holy days. The miracles of the splitting of the Red Sea and the ten plagues are associated with Passover. The appearance of God on Mt. Sinai is associated with Shavuot. The survival of the Jews from massive genocide is part of the Purim story. 

Hanukkah is based upon a miracle that occurred twenty-two hundred years ago,4

 when the Maccabees defeated the Greeks. Upon reentering the Second Temple, they found that the oil used for the menorah had been defiled and that there was only a sufficient amount of pure oil to burn for a day. The miracle was that this oil burned for eight days, just enough time to prepare and transport a new supply.

Often, miracles are great, abrupt, and conspicuous. The most obvious biblical example is the parting of the sea at the time of the Exodus. A big miracle quite suddenly saves the Hebrews from annihilation. We often hear about these kinds of miracles: a terrible automobile accident with passengers unharmed, a parachute that fails to open but the skydiver somehow survives. Many miracles are in this category. Some say, however, that for every big miracle, billions of little ones exist. Jewish mystics suggest that the mundane world is where the true miraculous nature of creation lies. 



The question of miracles was of considerable interest to the talmudic sages. Is the universe an orderly place? If it is orderly, as most believed, miracles had to be something other than "out-of-the-blue" events. 

One of the ways ancient sages dealt with this question was to suggest that miracles had been preordained; they were in the mind of God, so to speak, at the time of creation. This is explicit in a midrash in which Moses argues with God, saying, "If you split the sea, you will go against the natural order of things. Who could trust you? Indeed, you would be contradicting your own promise to keep the sea and the land separate."4


This is an important argument. If we cannot trust that there is an orderly universe, our faith would be challenged. God promises that things are going to go in a certain way; water will not separate willy-nilly. If we discover that this promise does not hold one-hundred percent of the time, our sense of reality could be shattered. Thus, Moses is asking a critical question. God has put it in writing that water has certain properties but is about to break the rules at the Red Sea.4


The answer to this is found in a midrash that states: "The Holy One, stipulated [a precondition] for everything that was created in the six days of creation. [At the beginning of creation, the Holy One said,] I commanded the sea to divide...I commanded the sun and moon to stand still before Joshua; I commanded the raven to feed Elijah...I commanded the lions not to harm Daniel, the heavens to open for Ezekiel and the fish to regurgitate Jonah."4

 All this was done before the creation of Adam and Eve and it implies that all miracles are a necessary part of the destiny of the universe.4


In essence, the sages used this approach to resolve the crucial question: Is there order to the universe, or not? They say, yes. Even though a miracle seems to change the orderly flow of things, it is built into the mechanism of creation. The potential for miracles is an defined part of atomic structure. Although we have an orderly universe, the universe has the paradoxical potential to do extraordinary things that we would deem miraculous. 

The well known Kabbalist, Nachmanides, added a mystical dimension to this perspective. In response to the viewpoint of Maimonides that miracles are used by God to reveal Itself to the masses, Nachmanides suggested that a level of reality supersedes nature and in this higher reality the miraculous is commonplace. Nachmanides says that a miracle is not a singular event in contrast to the flow of nature, rather miracles are an on-going process.4

 The only reason we think that a miracle is out of the ordinary flow of nature is because we do not have a broad enough scope of these other dimensions of reality. If we did, we would see that everything is dependent upon miracles. 



The Kabbalists teach that everything we do stirs up a corresponding energy in other realms of reality. Actions, words or thoughts set up reverberations in the universe. The universe unfolds from moment-to-moment as a function of all the variables leading up to that moment. As long as we remain cognizant of this mystical system, we are careful about what we do, say, or even think, for we know that everything is interdependent; we know that a seemingly insignificant gesture could have weighty consequences. 

For example, when we leave our home to go visit someone, we affect and are affected by our surroundings in thousands of ways from the time we step out of the door until we return. Where we place our feet, the people we see, the traffic we encounter, and the impressions we make all can be envisioned as intersecting lines in a great tapestry of life.

Now, what happens if the telephone rings just as we are about to leave? Our trip is delayed for a few minutes. This changes the design of the entire tapestry. Everything is different. The timing changes. The green light is now red; the person we smiled at is gone; the ant we never saw is now crushed.

In the new science of chaos theory, there is a well known phenomenon called the "butterfly effect" in which the air moved in one part of the world by an insect can be the initiatory cause for a typhoon that occurs somewhere else in the world at a later time. The technical term for this is: sensitive dependence upon initial conditions.4

 This adds an incredible dimension to our lives. What does it mean that my automobile would push one air mass if I were not interrupted by a telephone call and a completely different air mass if I were? What different reverberations are set up in the universe by those few minutes? Does one lead to a typhoon in my life while the other does nothing? 

Moreover, what if the phone ringing causes me to miss a terrible accident that otherwise would have maimed or killed me! A truck lost its brakes and came through a red light where I would have been had the phone not rung. Should I call this a miracle? Yet, how would I even know that the accident would have occurred? Two minutes later everything seems normal. Obviously, this would be an "unrealized" miracle.

In Jewish mysticism, the instant we open our eyes to the true dimensions of creation and causality we find ourselves immersed in a sea of miracles. This realization is astonishing. At any instant creation might unfold in a way that would be disastrous for us; therefore, each moment is bursting with the gift of life. Indeed, as a result of this awareness, the mystic intensely loves life and feels loved by it.