The miracle of the ordinary
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
Last Tuesday night, a great miracle happened in Alabama. But it was no miracle. It was the natural consequence of a group of ordinary people who exercised their civic duty, got out and voted their conscience. The word miracle is often used to mean a sign from God by which we are either being blessed or punished—a problematic idea since one people’s miracle is another people’s disaster.
The heretic/sage Baruch Spinoza, in Chapter 6 of his Theologico-Politcial Treatise offers a fabulous take-down of this idea of “miracle.” He makes the radical assertion that it is not extraordinary occurrences that indicate Divine presence, but rather the ordinary. An earthquake, or solar eclipse, or flood is no more miraculous or an act of God than the chirp of a cricket, a tree’s growth, or the beating of our own hearts. Divine law governs nature, he argues, and as such is knowable to the extent that we can understand it. There are patterns and chain reactions in nature that are predictable, including exceptional events. Miracles then are simply a point of view.
This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, Genesis 41:1-44:17 describes the repetitive dreams of Pharaoh which become, through Joseph’s interpretation, a prediction of irregular geo-climate events that will lead to 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. Joseph attributes this interpretation to God, saying, “the matter has been determined by God, and God will soon carry it out” (Gen. 41:32). In effect, this is Spinoza’s poetic proof text. There are patterns of abundance and deprivation. That this prediction comes from a guy whose fate was a wild series of ricocheting back and forth makes sense. Joseph was the favored son and then the outcast son; he was the most trusted employee in a hoy-paloy household who ended up in a prison dungeon; and he was the guy who got out of prison to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams and then go on to join Egypt’s elite. He was a person who was dialed up to life’s patterns and shifts. If anyone knew about waiting out the tough times, and enjoying the bounty when you’ve got it, it was Joseph. It seems to me that this Torah portion is implying that we are far better off to recognize and use the power and wisdom we possess than to wait on miracles.
Which brings us to Channukah. I have to argue that the value of this holiday is not the celebration of a “miraculous” military victory, which is actually easily explained and predictable. As was the disastrous reign of the Chashmonaim (“Maccabees”) who—after winning back the temple from the Syrian-Greeks in (ca. 167 BCE)—in cahoots with the Romans a century or so later, became their own version of despots. They ended their rule despised and it could be argued that their excesses and corruption contributed to the ultimate crash of the second temple in 70 CE. So much for miracles.
Well, not so quick… The true miracle of Channukah is that the maggidim, the yarn spinners, the earbenders of the Talmud, saw an opportunity to turn a tragic story into a triumph of the spirit. They teach us that finding a spark of beauty, truth, brilliance or healing in any, and every, situation is miraculous. Those crazy old coots cooked up that farkachte story of the oil burning for 8 days because they knew that we need the miracle of hope to get through the gloom. They used their imagination, their faith, and their creativity to redeem one of the bleakest moments in Jewish history. The miracle is that it worked.
So Friends, let’s celebrate the light we generate, the light we tend, and the light we spark in others this Shabbat; may we have the strength to stay hopeful through life’s rough patches and disappointments; and may we cast our lot with faith and fire, for the good.