Friday, February 22, 2019

“Do You Believe in Miracles? Yes!”

The word “miracle” brings to mind Biblical stories, spiritual epiphanies, theological fervor, and religious symbols and icons. Hardly anyone would associate the term “miracle” with ice hockey. But on February 22, 1980, the word was used by the celebrated sportscaster Al Michaels, to describe the unlikely victory of the U.S. hockey team against the Soviet Hockey team, recognized as the best team in the world, in the 1980 Winter Olympics, held in Lake Placid, NY. The win placed the U.S. team into the finals, which they won and earned the coveted gold medal. “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” was the spontaneous and now-iconic extemporaneous reaction by Michaels as the clock ticked down to the end of the game. The 2004 movie about the scrappy group of amateur ice hockey players who beat the Soviet behemoth was entitled, “Miracle.”

The Hebrew word for miracle is “nes.” Yet the very same word also means “pole” in Hebrew. What can we learn about the Jewish concept of miracles from a pole?

The first appearance of the word “nes” in the Torah appears not in the context of miracle, but regarding its cognate, pole. God had just said to Moses, “Make a venomous serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live.” After the Children of Israel fought a successful battle against the Canaanites, the nation became embittered, complaining that there was no bread or water, and how they were becoming tired of the manna which sustained them. God sent venomous snakes to the Israelite camp, who bit many people who died from the injuries. The nation approached Moses, admitted that they had sinned and asked Moses to pray to God to remove the snakes. It is here where God instructed Moses to make this pole.

Regarding this cryptic response of constructing a pole, the Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 3:8) asks, “Does a snake give life, or cause death? Rather, what the text means is that when the Israelites looked up, they subjugated their hearts to God in heaven and were instantly healed.”

Jewish wisdom is telling us that a miracle is like a pole, on which is flown a banner or flag. We rally around a banner, and the banner is often a means to inject pride and faith. So too with miracles. Supernatural Divine events are not themselves the source for inspired faith; they are occurrences that we can rally around, helping us grow in our trust in the Almighty.

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