At a wayside inn, a dozen chassidic merchants were warming themselves at the fire. The group included men from towns and villages across Russia and Poland, all traveling to the great annual fair at Leipzig. The conversation soon turned to the greatness of their rebbes, as each extolled the virtues of his master.

One by one, the chassidim told stories about the miraculous powers of their rebbes. One told how for 15 years he and his wife had yearned for a child, until they received a blessing from their rebbe: within a year, they were cradling their newborn son in their arms. A second told of how his rebbe had neutralized the Jew-hating, pogrom-inciting priest in their village, while a third related how his rebbe's blessing and special instructions had brought home his wayward son. And so they passed the hours, recounting the wonders performed by their holy mentors.

Finally, they all turned to the one chassid who had listened in silence to their stories. "Nu, whose chassid are you?" they asked. "Let's hear something about your rebbe."

The chassid said: "I am a Chabad chassid, a disciple of Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch. I deal in lumber, and several years ago I was offered a forest for sale. The price was high, but the opportunities were even greater — there was talk of a railroad to be constructed, raising the demand for and profitability of the local lumber. As I do with all major decisions in my life, I consulted with the Rebbe. He advised me to buy the forest.

"The purchase ruined me. The railroad project fell through and I was left with a basically worthless forest. I lost my entire fortune and was cast heavily into debt."

After a lengthy pause, one of the listeners asked, "And then? What happened?"

"Nothing," said the chassid. "I am still struggling to feed my family and repay my debts."

"So what's the miracle?" they all asked.

"That my relationship with the Rebbe has nothing to do with his wonder-working powers. That I continue to follow his directives in every area of my life. The miracle is that I am his chassid."1

The Miracle of the Clay Pits

One of the stories recounted in the portion of Lech Lecha is the battle of the four kings vs. the five kings which eventually involved Abraham, our protagonist. The four kings were far mightier than the group of five, but they made the mistake of capturing Abraham’s nephew, Lot, dragging the man of G‑d into war on the side of the weaker five. With G‑d’s help, Abraham’s intervention decided the war’s outcome: Lot was freed and the five kings spared.

The Torah describes the retreating army as they fled in defeat:

Now the valley of Siddim was [composed of] many clay pits, and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled and they fell there, and the survivors fled to a mountain.2

Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that a miracle occurred for the kings in these pits. Though they were filled with clay and would normally trap all who fell in, these kings were miraculously pulled from the clay pits as they sank into them. This miracle evokes the miracle that occurred to Abraham when he was thrown into the fiery furnace and emerged alive. The Midrash indeed links the two, commenting that the people didn’t fully believe that it was G‑d who saved Abraham until they saw this miracle years later. The repeat performance finally convinced all the skeptics that it was G‑d who had wrought a similar miracle for Abraham so long ago.

The obvious question is that really, the opposite should be true: if you witness a one-time miracle that completely defies the laws of nature, it’s easier to assume it is the hand of G‑d. But when it occurs more than once, you can be lulled into thinking that it’s just “natural.” Why would a repeat occurrence be more convincing proof?

Color Me Skeptical

When an earth-shattering miracle occurs, it indeed is easy to believe. After all, if you see the sea split, or water turn to blood, how can you not believe in G‑d? Even when it’s not an outright supernatural occurrence, when G‑d’s hand is clear, it’s clear—and it’s easy to believe in the moment. When a loved one is deathly ill, all the doctors have given up hope, and then suddenly they make a miraculous turnaround, all the “color me skeptical” people come running back saying, “You were right! I believe now!”

But the reality is that such “belief” isn’t really belief at all. It’s simple fact, observable truth. “Seeing is believing” is one of those clichés that sound good, but isn’t true. If you see it, you don’t need to believe it. It just is.

Do you need to believe that the sun rises in the morning? Do you believe you’re alive? Do you believe ice cream tastes good?

Of course not. You know these things are cold, hard, delicious truths.

Belief begins when skepticism is a viable option. When you witness a medical miracle once, you’re blown away and run to shul and pray like Moses. But when you start working in the hospital and witness such miracles over and over again (thank G‑d!), it’s no longer as convincing. It’s just “science” and “statistics” or whatever other banal explanation people so readily come up with.

When you choose to believe despite the viable, easy, and rational justifications, then you’re a true believer. When you choose to look under the hood of familiarity and see the incognito hand of G‑d, then you really believe.

So when G‑d performed a miracle for the kings and those who witnessed it chose to believe that what occurred to Abraham was also a miracle from G‑d, it made them true believers—more so than in the past when it was more clearly an act of G‑d.

Choose Belief

It’s easy to believe when things are miraculous. When life is swell and you’ve scored some major wins, it’s easy to profess your profound piety and relationship with G‑d.

When you miss your flight and get frustrated only to discover that the plane you missed just crashed (G‑d forbid!), it’s easy to “believe.” Of course you do.

But what about when you miss your flight, then the reroute is delayed, your luggage never arrives. . . and the plane you missed arrives safely and you’re still stuck without a change of clothes in Singapore? How do you feel then? Do you still believe?

Are you like the chassid who needs his rebbe to perform a miracle for him to believe, or are you like the chassid who believes despite the lack of any miracles?

Be like the third chassid. Don’t sit around waiting for crazy miracles to hit you over the head before you start believing. Like so many other things in life, belief is a choice. And that’s great news, for belief is an empowering and edifying feeling that can carry you through so much. That it can be yours whenever you want is nothing short of a gift.

So why not unwrap that gift right now?3