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Jewish Journal

The Miracle of Purim

by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

March 4, 2004 | 7:00 pm

People generally think that a miracle must be a supernatural event. In truth, however, a miracle need not be supernatural, and a supernatural event may not necessarily be a miracle. These two concepts sometimes overlap, but they are not identical.

The events of Purim are clearly regarded as miraculous, yet the story unfolds quite logically, through very human emotions and very human actions. Certainly, the narrative has religious elements: There is prayer, there is a fast, there is faith in deliverance, but where are the miracles -- the nisim -- and why is God's name not even mentioned? Perhaps, we must re-examine just what a miracle is, that is, what turns a mere event into a miracle.

I would suggest that the "supernatural" is whatever cannot be explained by the physical laws of nature as we understand them, whereas a "miracle" is a meaningful event, regardless of whether it happens within the laws of nature or outside of them. The essential aspect of a miracle is its significance: Its naturalness or unnaturalness is only its mechanism, its external manifestation. To illustrate this in broad theological strokes, we may say that if the Almighty is not concerned with the actual agency of a miracle, then it should not matter to us either. What matters is not how something happens, but the meaning associated with what happens.

This definition entails a change of conception, since even something that happens naturally can still be meaningful. One who has been cured of a serious illness, for example, or escapes from a dangerous situation, recites the blessing of "HaGomel" in synagogue, in which he publicly thanks God for having saved him. This does not mean that recovering from illness or walking away from an accident unscathed is necessarily miraculous in the supernatural sense of the word, but only that it is significant. And it is its significance that makes it miraculous.

Our awareness of the association between miracles and meaning fades with familiarity: When we get used to something, its ability to elicit wonder tends to dissipate. The Bible records that when Eve gave birth to Cain, she uttered in awe, "I have made a man together with God" (Genesis 4:1). The birth of a baby is no less a miracle today, and God's role in the process has in no way been diminished, yet there is a tendency for people to take it for granted. The manna in the desert was most certainly a miracle, but in the course of 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites became accustomed to it. Indeed, not only did they cease to marvel at it, but they complained bitterly that it was their only form of sustenance.

We can see, then, that we use the terms supernatural and miraculous for things to which we are not accustomed. Indeed, it matters little whether an event is objectively "natural" or "supernatural"; what matters is how we perceive it.

In the Jewish prayer book, there are a great number of blessings. Many of them concern simple, mundane activities, such as opening one's eyes in the morning, stretching, standing on one's feet, walking and so on. Why must we say them every day? Because the significance and wondrousness of our ability to do these things tends to get lost. We rarely recognize them as gifts from God until they are suddenly gone: It is only when pain prevents us from walking with ease that we recognize and acknowledge God's role in "firming our footsteps."

In fact, we often need to experience the extraordinary in order to reawaken us to the significance of the ordinary. When something happens that is remarkable and unusual, we are jolted out of our stupor and reacquire the ability to see the miraculous in the routine and the habitual. This sudden change enables us to see what routine conceals, so that we can once again perceive what is truly important and what is not.

There are two ways of sensing God's presence in the world. One is through thunder and lightning and other extraordinary events; the other is within the world's natural order. Nature is God's alternate signature, so to speak, when He does not want to sign His work with the Ineffable Name.

Thus, we may say that God wrote the Book of Esther using a pseudonym; God's name is there even when it is not written. And, more important, God is there. Even things that seem rational, clear and "natural," may be miracles. May our experience of Purim enable us to appreciate all of the miracles in our lives.

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