Does God still perform miracles?
I'd really love to see something that ranks with the splitting of the Red Sea, the 10 plagues or the sun standing still at the command of someone like Joshua.
Where are all of God's miracles today? He hasn't gone on vacation, so what's going on?
There is a holiday on the Jewish calendar whose main point is to resolve this very problem. And that's why the rabbis of the Talmud maintained that even though every other festival will eventually fall by the wayside in the messianic era, one holiday will be observed forever. Its message is so powerful that we can never dare to forget it.
It's not Passover or Yom Kippur. Surprisingly, the sole festival granted immortality in Jewish tradition is the seemingly minor day of Purim. And that certainly begs for an explanation.
"I Can't Go On"
A personal story will shed some light on the matter. Thirty years ago in the middle of giving a lecture to my class at Yeshiva University I was suddenly called out due to "a life-and-death emergency.” One of my students was threatening to commit suicide in his dormitory room and desperately needed some counseling.
I rushed over and found the young man wailing and moaning. “This is the worst day of my life!” he screamed, “I don't want to go on living anymore.” Slowly the story poured out of him. His girlfriend had just broken up with him and he was inconsolable. “You don't understand, Rabbi. I'll never ever find anyone like her. I'll never meet someone as perfect as she is. I can't go on, I just want to die.”
I stayed with my student all day, as well as the following night. I tried to reassure him that his life was not over. By morning I finally got him to promise me not to give up on his future. He agreed that suicide is a sin and that he'd struggle to go on, even though it pained him to lose what he was certain was his only possibility for happiness.
There are times in life when we mistake blessings for tragedies.
A little over 20 years later I was teaching in my very same classroom when there was a knock on the door. A young man asked permission to enter and then, with a smile, asked, “Rabbi, do you remember me?”
It took but a moment for me to realize who it was. “Of course I recognize you,” I told him, “and you still owe me a night’s sleep.”
The young man returned to tell me the end of the story. “You know that day when I wanted to commit suicide and I told you it was the worst day of my life? In retrospect I now realize that day was really the luckiest day of my life. The girl I thought I couldn't live without -- she's been involved in drugs and a series of scandals that even hit the newspapers. My life would have been a horror had we stayed together. I came back to thank you Rabbi, because today I am married to a woman who is truly the best in the world and we have four amazing children who give me joy every single day. I guess what you taught us is true. There are times in life when we mistake blessings for tragedies.”
But that's not the end of the story.
Just one year after this moving experience I was invited to serve as scholar in residence at a synagogue in Los Angeles. For my Sabbath sermon I chose a theme based on a verse in Exodus in response to Moses’ request to see God. God told Moses, “You cannot see My face, for man cannot see My face and live... you will see My back, but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20). Of course God has no body. It was not His physical appearance that was being discussed. Moses wanted to “see” -- to comprehend -- God’s ways and His interaction with His creations. What he was told is that with our finite intelligence we can't understand events as they unfold; it is only retroactively that “You will see My back” and grasp God’s infinite wisdom. I quoted Kierkegaard who expressed the same idea when he said, “The greatest tragedy of life is that it must be lived forward and can only be understood backwards.” And then, as I was speaking, the story of the suicidal student suddenly popped into my head and I told it as an illustration.
The following Sunday night, one of the congregants told me that my speech had unwittingly saved a life. It seems that in the audience on the previous day for the Sabbath service was a young man just 24 hours before his wedding. He was scheduled to fly out to New York late Saturday night to join his bride for the wedding ceremony they had been happily anticipating for the last six months. No sooner was the Sabbath over when he received the phone call that shattered his dreams. His fiancee at the last moment decided she couldn't go through with it. She called to regretfully inform him that it was all over.
The almost-to-be-groom later described to his friends what happened next. For a moment he felt suicidal. He wanted to rage, to vent his anger, to scream. But one thought kept repeating itself in his mind. Why was it that on that very morning he heard a sermon describing an almost similar event? He had not intended to go to that particular synagogue. It was a last-minute decision that brought him to a place where, almost as a Divine message, he could hear words that in the aftermath of his own tragedy might offer him some solace.
Little did he know that my inserting that particular illustration was also totally unplanned. A higher source put into my mind and my mouth -- a gift from God to allow someone to survive incredible pain just a few hours later.
And this story, too, has a happy ending. This past July my wife and I were strapping ourselves into our El Al seats on the way to Israel. Passengers were still filing by on the aisles when one of them began to stare at me and suddenly shouted, “Aren’t you Rabbi Blech?” When I responded that indeed I was, he identified himself. Five years before, he told me, he was sitting in a synagogue in Los Angeles on the day before he was supposed to get married. He proceeded to share the part of the story I already knew.
With tears in his eyes he asked me to come with him so he could introduce his wife and three children. “I'm just like that student in the story you told us that unforgettable Shabbat. Today I'm the happiest man in the world. I can honestly say that the curse of that Saturday night has turned out to be my greatest blessing.”
There is a Hebrew word in the book of Esther central to the story of Purim that captures this idea best: V’nahafoch -- it was turned around. Everything that seemed like a misfortune at first was in retrospect recognized as a Divine miracle. Because there are miracles, unlike those in the Bible, that come camouflaged as seeming coincidences, as natural events, as incidents that “just happened,” but that in reality are the products of heavenly intervention in the affairs of mankind.
Everything that seemed like a misfortune was in retrospect recognized as a Divine miracle.
The very name Purim comes from the word meaning "lottery." Some call that a game of pure luck, the winner determined by random inexplicable forces that have no rational basis. Faith however allows us to understand that in a world governed by an All-seeing God there cannot be room for blind chance. A lottery is far more than luck; it is allowing the Director of the universe to decide the outcome while hiding in the background.
Purim is the holiday that harps on what people call coincidence. It reminds us, as the proverb has it, that “coincidence is God's way of choosing to remain anonymous.”
Purim has many miracles in its story. Not the kind of miracles that override the rules of nature. Rather the miracles that happen so much more frequently in our own lives. The miracles that we so often discount because God chooses not to shout but rather to whisper. It is His still small voice that we have to attune ourselves to hear as He turns tragedies into blessings. And that is why the festival of Purim, with its message of miracles camouflaged as coincidence, will outlast every other holiday on the Jewish calendar.