Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
The Bible states that the Red Sea was parted by God and the Hebrews walked on dry land with a wall of water on each side. The History Channel claims this is a fantasy. In fact, it claims it wasn't even the Red Sea but the "Reed Sea," and it was shallow, and the Egyptians couldn't get at the Hebrews because their chariots got stuck. Can you comment on this?
-- P., via email
Questions about miracles turn up nearly every week in my email. Miracles seem to be a great obstacle to faith for many people. I think this need not be the case.
I believe in miracles, and I believe in science, and I don't think there's a contradiction. The key spiritual move here is to divide miracles into several types. Some things are impossible, even for God, because they're a contradiction in terms. God cannot make a married bachelor or a square circle because this is an impossible contradiction. A bachelor must be unmarried, and a circle cannot be square.
Miracles of the second type also are impossible because they contradict the laws of nature, and a law of nature must be true for it to be a law. There cannot be talking snakes because a snake doesn't have a larynx. The stories of these miracles are meant as fables intended to teach higher and completely true teachings, like the need to follow God's commandments, which is, I believe, the real purpose and meaning of the Garden of Eden snake story. The meaning is true, but not the talking snake.
Finally, there are miracles that look impossible but are not really impossible because they don't violate the laws of nature. The crossing of the Red Sea (or the "Reed Sea") and most of all the plagues in Egypt seem to me to be miracles of this type, and I believe in them.
I recently heard a story originally reported on the radio that recounted the amazing, improbable, miraculous and true story of Laura Buxton, a red-haired 10-year-old girl with a black lab and a guinea pig with a furry brown rear end in the north of England who released a balloon from her back yard with a note asking the finder to call her.
The balloon traveled 140 miles and landed in the back yard of another red-haired 10-year-old girl with a black lab and a guinea pig with a furry brown rear end. The girl who found the balloon was also named Laura Buxton! The odds against this happening are enormous and yet, miraculously, it happened.
I think questions about miracles are ultimately not about God but about us. Are we open to the miracles happening all around us all the time? One of my favorite rabbinical stories about the Exodus is that there were people who walked through the Red Sea and never saw the miracle because . . . they never looked up, and so all they saw was mud. In this new year, my prayer is simple: May we always be looking up.
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I recently answered a question from a reader who had been inundated with charity requests and gifts. Fellow readers offered some interesting suggestions about how to deal with unwanted religious objects sent by aggressive charities.
C. wrote: "I also receive many requests for donations, often before the check for the previous donation cleared the bank. I've concluded that these requests are computer-generated on a 2- to 3-week basis. Therefore, I now buy midsized brown envelopes that can be mailed with a 45-cent stamp. I simply put the request into one of those envelopes and mail it back with a note stating that I don't accept religious items sent through the mail. I then request that the sender remove my name from the mailing list. The disposal problem is theirs. Both my conscience and my kitchen countertop are clean."
J. offered: "I want to share a little humor with you. I did receive a request from an organization one time that included a nickel. I did not choose to send them a donation, but I didn't want to keep the money, either. I decided to "drop" the nickel in the box at the back of church for donations to benefit the food bank. It sounded like the Liberty Bell had just rung; very embarrassing! You can see, I was pretty caught up in getting rid of the darn nickel. It happened again, but I'd learned a lesson: Wrap a five around the coin."