How to Find the Miracles in Every Day Life
“Taking Miracles Seriously: A Journey to Everyday Spirituality” by Rabbi Michael Zedek (Sutherland House Books, 2023)
“Taking Miracles Seriously” puts readers on a truly original search for spiritual sustenance in everyday life, drawing on a range of materials including Biblical tales, Indian and Japanese folklore, and the works of St. Augustine, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Groucho Marx. In reading these stories, readers will learn how to identify and appreciate the miraculous in an often mundane world, and how to take God seriously when much of the intellectual world doesn’t. Below is an excerpt from the book:
In an interview just before his death, the Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer said:
For me everything is still mysterious, even the most natural things. When I throw a stone and it falls back to earth I know that it’s gravity, but isn’t that a great mystery? Just because you’ve seen a thing ten times should it stop being mysterious? A writer gave me once a story about a man with a chopped off head who talks. I said, “Isn’t it marvelous enough that a man with a head can talk?
So let’s talk.
Is it possible to demystify the miracle stories in the Hebrew Bible and still attach value and reverence to them? Is there a notion of miracle that does not require a suspension of disbelief, such that the only options are that Deity acted … in ways no longer available to us, or that the whole Biblical framework is filled with fairy tales — or, to use an especially apt Yiddish word, “narisshkeit”?
The episode of Moses at the burning bush is a preeminent challenge for us.
What would we conclude if someone other than Moses informed us that while out in the desert or in a local park, he or she had seen a bush that was both burning and not burning, and also that the bush spoke to them? Our most likely response would be skepticism or, perhaps to suggest medical attention — or, more problematic, to give the person a television show on which to offer prayers in return for our cash pledges.
More seriously, how would one know a bush is burning, yet not being consumed? The Biblical description defies language, logic, and science. If the bush is burning, then it is, even if slowly, burning up; if it is not burning up, in what sense is it on fire at all?
More substantively, and some may find this heterodox, if not heretical, I do not believe bushes talk — in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or English. But I do think we may hear ourselves addressed and experience a sacred dimension in a multitude of encounters, be they with persons, moments, art, and the environment. In fact, I would argue such is possible with all things and in all experiences.
An ancient Midrash instructs that not a single blade of grass can grow unless the angel for that blade of grass whispers to it, “Grow. Grow.” While I do not consider that factual, it conveys a truth. For, surely, we have all experienced moments — a remarkable sunset, a precious exchange between friends, a perfect day, the moment of birth, the death of someone loved — when life conveys a clarity and coherence such that we know, like Moses, “[t]he ground upon which we walk is holy.”
The text clearly indicates that Moses experiences something that changes his life. There he is, safe in the Sinai suburbs, married to the boss’ daughter, no doubt belonging to all the right clubs, and he throws it all away and puts his life at risk for the sake of a vision and for a people who will rarely be grateful and more commonly will engage in ceaseless bellyaching.
What’s the likeliest explanation for what happened to Moses?
Recall, as the text states, it is near sunset in the desert. For us moderns, that means something remarkable and rare, an unpolluted and clear sky, one, as it were, ablaze with color. Moses observes, at least as a possibility, a bush between him and the horizon. Whether the story happened in fact or is only the invention of a storyteller, that bush would have to be a gnarled, thorny, small-leafed shrub, the sort of specialized vegetation adapted to a desert environment. The small leaves minimize evaporation, and the thorns make it difficult for animals to consume the plant.
What Moses sees, then, is a rather unimpressive bramble set before a sky on fire. But what he understands is more critical. Moses realizes that he cannot be indifferent, and cannot be safe, while his people are burning in the furnace of Egyptian slavery. With that conviction, that message or communication, Moses begins the story of one group’s liberation, a story that literally continues to inform and change the world.
When we engage in a reasonable and reasoned examination of this episode, by which I mean putting aside the notion of miracles as supernatural interventions, we find revealed an alternative that allows a deep understanding of a miracle close at hand.
For further reflection:
- Do you recall an experience when, like Moses, you felt yourself addressed in a deep and nuanced fashion?
- If so, did that encounter cause you to make changes in your life? What were they?
Brooklyn-born Michael Zedek is rabbi emeritus of both B’nai Jehudah (Kansas City) and Emanuel Congregation (Chicago), and former chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati (JFC). A dedicated community activist, scholar, and teacher, Rabbi Zedek has received numerous awards including a Fulbright. He is the founder and co-host of weekly radio show “Religion on the Line.”