Every time we come to this week's parashah / Torah portion, I wonder again at the phenomenon of miracles . . . . Theologically speaking, a miracle is an act initiated by God that is impossible according to the laws of nature (established by God). That's what makes a miracle miraculous. That's also why the insurance companies term for terrible natural acts like tornadoes and hurricanes is so off-target . . . because these are not deliberate "acts of God", these are not miracles imposed on the world by a vengeful or angry deity . . . but they are phenomenon ruled by the laws of nature established by God.
In the setting of biblical Egypt, though, the "wonders" performed by God . . . and by the Egyptian gods . . . seem to be the stuff of divine "throwdowns." God instructs Aaron to throw down his staff (in last week's Torah reading) and the staff turns to a snake. Not to be outdone, the Pharaoh's wizards also throw down their staffs, which also turn to snakes . . . but in this moment of divine one upmanship, the God of the Israelites prevails by having Aaron's snake devour those of the Egyptian wizards. It's an omen Pharoah will ignore at his peril and the peril of his people until the end of this week's parashah.
No one, though, blinks an eye at the phenomenon of the Israelite God or the Egyptian gods manipulating events and nature at will.
I don't think we'd be so sanguine today.
We do speak of miracles . . . but in general we are expressing appreciation for moments when the laws of nature work particularly beautifully and well: when a healthy baby is born, when someone recovers from a life-threatening illness or injury. It's good that we are appreciative of such blessings. But a personal blessing is not the same as a public miracle. God no longer moves through this world countering the laws of nature.
Although it would be exciting to witness a real contradicting-the-laws-of-nature miracle, I think it would also be terrifying . . . look at the panic that spreads when something happens that is within nature's set repertoire! So now, we need to look more carefully, on the micro-level, for signs of God's hand in the world . . . not the grand stage of miracles, but the quiet phenomenon of blessing: the constant renewal of life and love. It is God, after all, who bestows these blessings on us if we only take the time to see them.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.