When it comes to both science and religion, “miracles” are a tricky business. We often talk about a “miraculous recovery” from an illness, or describe the speed of the COVID-19 vaccine development and rollout as a “miracle.” Yet when Donald Trump said in February 2020 that, “One day — like a miracle — [the coronavirus] will disappear,” he was rightly ridiculed. And nearly 600 former Jeopardy! contestants (myself included) signed an open letter decrying Dr. Oz as a guest host, in large part due to his peddling “miracle” cures for diseases that were not based in any kind of fact.
Yet in the religious sphere, miracles are part and parcel of the story. In just a few days, we’ll be singing Dayenu, “It would have been enough.” While we mainly think of it as a song that gives thanks to God for each step along the way for the Israelites’ journey to freedom, nearly every step deals with a miraculous intervention — smiting the Egyptians’ first-born, splitting the sea, allowing us to walk on dry land, providing manna in the desert.
So how should we look at miracles?
As modern, scientific people, we tend to accept only natural explanations for events. Miracles can’t be the “answer” to questions we don’t yet understand. That’s the biggest problem with Intelligent Design — it’s not that it is wrong or false, it’s that science explains while Intelligent Design explains away. Simply saying “God did it” ends the conversation, and stops generating new hypotheses, new questions, and new avenues of explorations.
Yet science is also in the realm only of the natural. Science can’t prove or disprove God, for example, since different religious traditions — and even different people in the same tradition — define or experience God in different ways. When people like Richard Dawkins mock religion and their definition of God, they are often speaking about a very narrow and specific definition of God. They are approaching God as a series of testable hypotheses, but for me (and for many other religious people), that’s not even close to how I think about and approach the Divine.
In a recent piece in the Atlantic, physicist Alan Lightman goes deeper on this question of “miracles,” and explains that for most of human history, when it came to miracles, there wasn’t a difference between “religion” and “science.”
The miraculous has meaning and definition only by comparison with the nonmiraculous. That is, for an event to be declared “supernatural,” we must first have some concept of the “natural,” the ordinary course of events. Early human beings had no such concept—except perhaps for individual deaths and the repeated rising and setting of the sun. Phenomena simply happened. Nature was strange, sometimes beautiful, largely unpredictable, and often frightening. Some concept of the “supernatural” must have been understood in the powers attributed to the gods and spirits of early civilizations.
Scientific miracles — such as vaccines, or the moon landing, or recovery from illness — don’t need supernatural explanations. “Religious miracles,” however, seem to defy natural laws. Trying to explain or understand the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the resurrection of Jesus seem to pit religion and science directly against each other.
But that misses the point of a “miracle.” In Hebrew, the word nes really means “a sign.” It’s something that leads us to act differently. Rabbi Lawrence Kusher, in his book God Was in This Place, and I, i Did Not Know, shares this story about two Israelites who crossed the Red Sea on foot — but didn’t experience the miracle:
Jewish tradition says that the splitting of the Red Sea was the greatest miracle ever performed. It was so extraordinary that on that day even a common servant beheld more than all the miracles beheld by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel combined. And yet we have one midrash that mentions two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who had a different experience.
Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?”
Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”
“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven.
“What’s the difference?” complained Shimon. “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.”
And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.
As someone who just got vaccinated, I’m deeply grateful to the scientists, researchers, delivery workers, doctors, nurses and funders who helped make this happen. The speed of this vaccine is truly miraculous, even if it is not supernatural. But this miracle, like other scientific miracles, is the result of thousands of small actions by thousands of people, often behind the scenes contributions that we don’t recognize. Scientific miracles are not instantaneous, like religious miracles tend to be, but are just as important to acknowledge and celebrate, even if they happen behind the scenes.
As we celebrate a second year of Pesach amidst COVID, we can see the shore of the other side of the Red Sea. We’re not yet there, and there will still be pitfalls and challenges ahead. We have lost far too many people, and too many of us have continued to feel isolated. But let the miracles of “Dayenu” be a guide — that each step along the way towards freedom and liberation is something to honor and be grateful for.