(This post was written for Huffington Post’s “TEDWeekends” series)
Do we still experience miracles today? It all depends on what we think a “miracle” truly is.
Often, when we think of miracles, we envision the events that form the basis for many religious traditions — the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus healing the lepers, Mohammed rising up to heaven.
But we also use the word “miracle” in more everyday situations. When a family member recovers from an illness, we call it a “miracle.” When we narrowly avert a disaster, we call it a “miracle.” When we think, “If I had missed that dinner party, I never would have met my spouse,” we call it a “miracle.”
And perhaps the most common way we use the word miracle is in “the miracle of birth,” which Alexander Tsiaris’ TEDTalk, “Conception to Birth — visualized” shows us quite concretely.
Tsiaris’ work helps us see all the miracles that occur as each of us comes into this world, and he gives us several examples. As our body develops in the womb, our cells somehow “know” what to do: collagen, which is usually opaque, becomes transparent in the only part of our body that needs to be — our eyes. In only weeks, two parallel strands fold over each other like origami, and we develop our heart. During one phase of pregnancy, our cells grow so quickly that if that pace were maintained for the full nine months, we would weigh 3000 pounds at delivery.
All of the elements in pregnancy, the whole process, truly seems “miraculous,” and yet it happens thousands of times each and every day. So if it is so common, how could it be “miraculous”?
Tsiaris says it well at the beginning of the talk — when you see the journey from conception to birth, “you just have to marvel.” And that’s what a “miracle” truly is, at least in Judaism: something that makes us go “wow.”
Indeed, the Hebrew word for miracle, “nes,” really means a “sign.” It’s not necessarily a voice from the heavens, or even a deviation from the natural order, although those would certainly astound us. Instead, a nes is something that engenders a sense of awe and mystery.
In fact, there’s even a section in the morning liturgy called the “nisim b’chol yom,” “the miracles of the every day.” Each morning when we wake up, we are supposed to offer thanks to God for the most mundane realities — for being able to see. For having clothes to wear. For being able to walk. For having awoken from our sleep.
There are at least two purposes to the nisim b’chol yom. First, it is to remind us that many people don’t have a place to sleep, clothes to wear, or food to eat, and so we have a responsibility help fix that. But even more importantly, it’s to remind us just how likely we are to take our daily blessings for granted. The nisim b’chol yom, the miracles of the everyday, are designed to create a daily sense of wonder. It’s less about thanking God than it is about giving thanks for the mystery
And that’s how I interpret Tsiaris’ line that there is “divinity” in the way we come into existence. I don’t think he means it in the sense of the “God of the gaps,” implying that if there’s something we don’t understand, “God did it.” Scientific knowledge will continue to move forward, giving us a clearer and deeper comprehension of how things work. Instead, I think he means “divinity” in the way Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about the goal of religious living: “to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom of all things.” (God in Search of Man, 49)
So even as we develop a deeper understanding of the way the world works, even as we understand the nuances of the complex world we live in, we can always reclaim our sense of wonder.
As Tsiaris’ video so powerfully shows, life truly is a miracle — and that’s a fact we should never forget.