What is a miracle?

We spent last weekend discussing what should or shouldn’t be considered a miracle. During the recent spate of violence from Gaza and subsequent retaliation by the Israeli Army, there was a lot of damage on both sides, but also many instances that came to be described as “miracles”. Consider the man who left his car and took shelter in a store when the rocket siren went off, and came back a few minutes later to see that a rocket had hit the car sqare on. That, said husband, is not a miracle, it is statistics. 1500 rockets fired towards populated areas means that some car will be hit. And that is all that happened.

Since 1990, after the first Gulf War, every new building in Israel has to be built with a “safe room”, a kind of small shelter, within the existing space. There are architectural specifications for how this room needs to be built, with reinforced concrete in the walls and metal-shutters that can be closed over the windows. There is also a minimum size. In many apartments it’s actually one of the bedrooms, but it can also be a closet or storage room. We don’t have one, because our building was built before 1990. During the recent battles the residents of southern Israel were told to go to their “safe spaces” when the alarm went off. There were many incidents where people ran to their “safe spaces” only to come out a few minutes later and find that the rest of their apartment was severly damaged. Miracle? Building standard?

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia “a miracle is an event attributed to divine intervention. Alternatively, it may be an event attributed to a miracle worker, saint, or religious leader. A miracle is sometimes thought of as a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature. Others suggest that God may work with the laws of nature to perform what people see as miracles. Theologians say that, with divine providence, God regularly works through created nature yet is free to work without, above, or against it as well. In casual usage, ”miracle” is seen as any event that is statistically unlikely but beneficial, (such as surviving a natural disaster), or simply a ”wonderful” occurrence, regardless of likelihood, such as a birth. Other miracles might be: survival of a terminal illness, escaping a life threatening situation or ‘beating the odds’.”

Next week we will celebrate the Jewish holiday Channuka, the childrens favourite. For eight days we light candles, starting with one and adding one more each night. And we eat delicious, unhealthy, oily food, invented before some spoil-sport came up with the table of nutritional value. I never met a calory I didn’t like, and Channuka doughnuts have very many.

Two weeks ago I was in Rome. In the former city center of ancient Rome, Forum Romanum, stands the Arch of Titus, depicting the victories of the Emperor over, amongst others, the Jews in the Land of Israel in 70 A.D (Second Temple). Titus destroyed the Second Temple and brought back its treasures, and its people, to Rome. We also visited the Colosseum, the original site of all reality shows. The guide told us that the enormous arena, which could seat 50,000 people, was built by slaves brought from the conquered Israel in 80 A.D. By the way, the Colosseum was such an ingenious piece of construction planned by the Roman architects that modern sports stadiums are still modeled on the same principles.

Second Temple/Wikipedia

Channuka is celebrated to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Greek Empire in the 2nd century BCE. As previously mentioned, the Second Temple was eventually also destroyed, but the memory of the surprising victory of the tiny Maccabeans forces against the mighty Greek empire is still considered a miracle worthy of celebration.

So a miracle can by definition be two things, either an occurrence that seems super-natural, something that should not be able to happen according to the laws of nature. We can then, according to taste, either keep god in this equation,  take her out, or call her luck. The other possibility is purely emotional. We call it a miracle, if it feels like a miracle. If I came out of a store to find that a rocket had fallen on the car I was about to get in to, I would experience that as a miracle. Standing in a room when a choir starts to sing is a miracle. One second there is just a bunch of people standing around and the next moment, there is complex, beautiful music all around.

The important part to me is that you live your life in appreciation. One way of looking at life is to view it as a manifestation of Murphy’s Law, ”Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. The opposite is to say, “Wow, that could have ended really badly, but it didn’t”.

One could say that Channuka should be cancelled, because the Second Temple was eventually destroyed and the Jews sent to exile in Rome. Or one could say that it’s a miracle that I can use my Israeli passport and travel to Italy to see the relief on Titus Arch of the original seven-armed candle-stick from the Temple being carried off to Rome two thousand years ago.


Happy Channuka!


Noomi Stahl