“So whatever is bringing you from Los Angeles to Lynchburg,” asks the woman with the slight southern drawl next to me on the route from Dallas.
“This airplane,” I tease and quickly follow up, “but seriously, a mentor of mine invited me to perform as part of a revue show at the Hyatt tomorrow night.”
“Oh, how fun. What type of performance are you going to do?”
I shrug and reply, “That’s the thing. I just don’t know yet.”
After I agreed to go but before I embarked on the trip, I asked Hiawatha what type of performance he thought a rabbi who had only recently stopped working for organized religion should do at a variety show in Lynchburg, Virginia.
He replied curtly, “Man, don’t give me that. You’re an artist. Figure it out.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to show you a miracle. A 100%, genuine, bonafide miracle. Seriously. But first, I would like to borrow a $20 bill,” I project to the crowd quickly and then pause.
“I thank you, Randall, for volunteering, Would you mind writing your name across the face of the bill so that you would recognize it as your own if you see it again?”
He does, and I take it back. In the silence, with theatrics large enough for the hotel ballroom, I put his bill into an envelope, put the envelope on a plate, squirt on a little lighter fluid, and set it ablaze.
Hiawatha, an African-American director of dance at Randolph Macon Women’s College, became a father figure to me—a Jewish kid from New York—shortly after I met him at Tannen’s Magic Camp in 1985. He was my first phone call after I lost my virginity.
When I told him I was going to rabbinical school, he laid it out, “Man, I’ve lost too many friends who became preachers and holier than thou and all that bull-wax. If you become an asshole, I’ll kick your ass.”
He signed as a witness on Jane’s and my ketubah—our Jewish wedding contract.
“Miracles are interesting things. However,” big pause, just for the laugh the awkward beat would provide, “However, we tend to define the miraculous as the impossible happening. Let me say that again: We tend to define the miraculous as the impossible happening. And this wretched definition means that we can never witness a miracle. Because as soon as the magical thing has happened, it’s no longer considered impossible. It just happened, and therefore it’s no longer a miracle. And this keeps us from considering the simplest things, like a radish blooming or even an envelope, to be miraculous.”
I pull a clean envelope from my pocket and begin to pour pieces of the ash into it as I continue with my patter:
“Let me tell you a story. A man goes to the lake with his dog, tosses a ball into the water, and the dog walks on the surface of the water, retrieves it, and comes back for a treat. The man tosses a rock into the water and watches it quickly sink. He tosses the ball and again the dog walks on the surface of the water to fetch it. The next morning, incredulous, he brings a friend with him.”
I take out my wallet and hand Randall a crisp $20 bill.
“The man watches his friend watch the dog walk across the surface of the water, and says, “Do you notice something odd?”
“Yes,” replies the friend. “Your dog can’t swim.”
I pause and look up from the envelope I’m filling with ash.
“Randall’s $20 bill isn’t getting restored. I said I wanted to show you a 100%, genuine, bonafide miracle. And those miracles aren’t flashy, but they are around us. If we shift our definition of the miraculous from the impossible happening, we can witness many miracles. I suggest, instead, we consider the miraculous as witnessing both the ordinary and improbable with new eyes. Then miracles include all the small things for which we ought to have simple and profound gratitude—like plates, and matches…and lighter fluid…and light bulbs, and… electricity… and….”
I have paced my words judiciously, so that I stopped before adding in another noun. Someone else will, and Randall does just that.
“Laughter, you crazy, beautiful preacher of sorts.”
“Yes, laughter is a miracle. And I thank you for the compliment, Randall. And what else? What other things around us at this moment are miracles if we open our eyes to them?”
“Our digestive system.”
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” I say. “These are all miracles, as long as we see them as such.
One other miracle I would like to add to the list: the creative process.
Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box rotb.org, an internet-based, global group of 3.2K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.
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