Miracles in the Wild

It was a very hot August day in the Arava Valley in the south of Israel. I was sitting on a hot bus, parked at the entrance to a hiking trail. It was my turn to stay back with the sick kids, so I was missing the hike. I was disappointed because Israel is one of the places where I most like hiking, and the Arava Valley is probably my one of my favourite place in the entire world.

After about 30 minutes of sitting, I decided to walk up the road a bit to try to get a signal on my cell phone. The highway through the Arava is a winding road, bending quickly around the many hills. Cars often drive too quickly there, and so I was walking very slowly and carefully as I came around the bend.

I turned the corner and found myself no more than five feet from a beautiful, white Ibex. For those of you who’ve never seen one,
an Ibex is sort of like a deer or an impala – small and graceful, with long thin horns, and the climbing ability of a ram or mountain goat.

We both froze. We were looking each other right in the eye. My heart was pounding, and the rest of the world was silent. In that moment, it was just her and me. I stayed frozen, not wanting to scare her, and after what seemed like a long time (but was probably less than a minute) she calmly walked across the road and began to climb up the hill.

I stayed where I was, watching in silent awe, and when she got a few feet up the hill, she looked back. At first, I thought she was looking back at me, but then, out of nowhere, a baby Ibex appeared, walked right past me, and followed her up the mountain. It seemed like a sacred moment. That somehow I had earned her trust, and she had felt it safe to allow the young one to come out and pass close by me.

I watched them climb up the hill until they were tiny dots in the distance. The whole time, no cars drove by, no sounds were heard.

Me in the wilderness, with the Ibex and her young.

It was many years ago now, but it remains one of the holiest moments of my life. As I walked back to the bus, I was no longer sorry I had missed the hike. I felt I had been given a special gift in that moment – something rare and precious and beautiful. It almost felt as though I had witnessed a miracle.

In our portion this week, the 10 Commandments are revealed to Moses at Sinai. It is a moment of intense holiness, for him, as well as for the Israelite people, who witness the momentous occasion. All around them, incredible things are happening! There was thunder and lightening and a thick cloud on the mountain; The voice of the Shofar could be heard blaring loudly; The mountain gave off smoke because, s the text tells us, “God had descending upon it in fire…and the whole mountain quaked greatly.”

This is hardly the first fantastical occurrence in our Torah, which is filled with miracles and marvels. In just this one generation – The Israelites have witnessed the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, manna falling from the sky, water flowing from rocks, the earth opening up and swallowing rebels, even a talking donkey!

Rabbis are often asked if Jews are really supposed to believe these things happened. After all, events defying the laws of nature aren’t so common nowadays. But if we don’t believe the stories in the Torah are true, it can become challenging to figure out what the value of Torah is. After all, if it’s just an ancient novel or fairytale, why is it so special?

Torah scholars have struggled with this question for many centuries. The early rabbinic commentators accepted the descriptions of miracles within the Torah at face value. But even before the age of science and modernity, many people had a hard time accepting stories which seemed incredible or could not be proven.

In answer to this challenge, the Rabbis of the Talmud responded that miracles such as these were actually planned by God at the time of the creation of the world. In other words, they are not interruptions of natural law, But rather, they are programmed into creation to occur at precisely the historic moment when they are most needed. “We can understand miracles therefore,” the Talmud tells us, “as preprogrammed “natural” events.”

Other rabbis were careful to point out that this explanation doesn’t mean we should expect a miracle to occur every time we need one. After all, doing so could be dangerous. These Talmudic responses though, do not really begin to satisfy our questions or skepticism about miracles.

In every age, Jewish philosophers have written about miracles and tried to help us understand them. Maimonides, Nachmadines, Spinoza, Buber – each one had a different idea, a different explanation, or a different approach. Some make more sense than others. And when you line them all up, you can almost make sense out of things. And every once in a while,  one idea or comment will jump out at you, and you’ll feel a moment of clarity.

For me, as I read through the different philosophers, that moment came when I got to the response of Franz Rosenzweig, an influential Jewish theologian in the early 20th century. Rosenzweig writes, “Every miracle can be explained – after the event… every miracle is possible, even the most absurd… in fact nothing is miraculous about a miracle except that it comes when it does. The east wind has probably swept bare the ford in the Red Sea Hundreds of times and will do so again… But that it did this at a moment when the people in their distress set foot in the sea – that is the miracle.”

Reading Rosenzweig’s words took me back to that moment in the Arava Valley. I left the bus looking for cell reception in the desert (now that would have been a miracle!), and ended up having a profound moment of connection with Nature and some of her most beautiful creatures.

Was it a miracle? Not really. Just a mother Ibex and her young crossing the road. Something that happens any number of times each day. But the timing of it made all the difference. If I had left that bus earlier, or sat there a little longer, I would have missed the whole thing. I would never have even known that such a moment was possible.

The event itself wasn’t the miracle. The miracle was the timing. Being in the right place at the right time, we might call it. Or some might just call it luck, or coincidence. But the power of the moment makes words like “luck” and “coincidence” seem inappropriate.

Torah is like that too. We can read the same verse year after year, and barely notice it. And then one day, we come back to it, and it stands out differently.  Maybe it reminds us of something that’s happening in our lives or in the life of someone we know. Maybe it answers a question we were just mulling over the day before. Whatever it is, the verse is suddenly profound; deeply meaningful. Nothing about the verse has changed. It is the same letters and words it always was. But the timing makes all the difference – and something that once meant nothing, now means everything.

So do miracles happen? I don’t know. Does it mean God knows when we most need something? Again, I have no idea. But I know that most everyone I know has a story like my Ibex story – some moment where something unexpected or profound happened to them. For some, it’s walking away from an accident unharmed. For others, it’s a song on the radio coming on at just the right moment. I’ll bet, if you think about it, you can recall a time in your life where it seemed – for just a second – like God was listening, and responding, to what you needed in just that moment.

Looking deep into the eyes of that Ibex – being trusted to be close to her young – didn’t make me believe in miraculous cures, or that every story will have a happy ending. I’m not even sure it made me believe in miracles. But that moment did, undoubtedly, affirm my belief in God.

May each of us have such moments, and may each of us have the wisdom to recognise and appreciate them when they bless our lives.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.


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