Miracles—the word itself is hazy. Just what is a miracle? A world-shocking event such as the parting of the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus? Or the constant human act of breathing? Neither of these two phenomena can truly be explained, but one of them is a familiar, ongoing occurrence while the other is an exotic, one-time happening. Let’s talk about these two types of miracles and see whether miracles have really ceased. The greatest miracle of all is described in the opening words of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, G‑d created . . .” Suddenly “nothing” was transformed into “something.” We are all familiar with the transformation of matter into energy or of energy into matter, but each of these changes involved a previously existing “something.” Where “nothing” exists, there can be no change. Creating ex nihilo—literally “out of nothing””—is beyond man’s capabilities. This is a hurdle of acceptance that must be confronted at the outset. G-d, and G-d alone can create. The miracle of creation is the miracle of the first order, beyond duplication by man. The more familiar miracles described elsewhere in the Torah—the parting of the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the Menorah that burned in the Sanctuary for eight days (the miracle of Chanukah), and so forth—these are all miracles of the second order. They did not entail creation ex nihilo, but merely change. Water, which is liquid, suddenly behaved like a solid; this, in brief is what happened when the Red Sea was parted to enable Israel to pass through it on dry land. A quantity of oil which normally can burn for only one day burned for eight full days because its rate of combustion had been slowed to one-eighth the ordinary rate. This, in brief, is the story of Chanukah. As the Talmud puts it, “He Who ordered oil to burn, and it burns, will order vinegar to burn and it, too, will burn.” But there is yet a third order of miracles—the miracles that are with us every day of our lives. The Sages teach us to “praise Him for every breath we draw.” We are to give thanks to G-d for our every heartbeat, for the smooth performance of all our vital functions, and indeed for all the day-by-day workings of nature. “But,” I hear someone protest, “that’s only nature!” Correct. But the ordinary, the “natural,” the everyday and commonplace happenings in nature and in our bodies are no less the work of G-d’s hand than the parting of the Red Sea and, for that matter, the act of Creation itself. Thus we see that miracles are indeed still taking place and, in fact, are happening all the time. This, by the way, is the explanation of the miracle of Purim, the deliverance of the Jewish people from Haman’s wicked scheming: a succession of events which are not in themselves “supernatural,” a series of what appears to be mere “coincidences,” but [rather] which come about at a time when they can do, and do, the most good. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once compared the Torah perspective and the non-Torah (we might call it “scientific”) perspective succinctly: the Torah view seeks the supernatural in the natural; science seeks the natural in the supernatural. The function of the scientist is to find reasons for all the phenomena of nature, and then to apply his findings to all the natural events he subsequently encounters. He sets out from the premise that there is a reason for everything; he has faith in cause and effect. If an apparently healthy man suddenly falls sick and dies, the scientist cannot simply attribute it to the inscrutable will of G‑d. His job is to find the cause of that illness, perhaps to cure others stricken with a similar disease, or perhaps to prevent the disease from striking others. Let it be emphasized that all this, in itself, is perfectly consonant with Torah doctrine. What are the physical causes of thunder and lightning, of rainbows, floods, earthquakes, eclipses, and famines—indeed, of anything in the universe? An occurrence that seems to defy explanation simply presents that much more of a challenge. “At the present stage in our knowledge we cannot adequately explain this phenomenon,” the scientist will note. But the fact remains that, as a scientist, he must find a “natural” explanation for whatever happens in the world in which we live. Torah imparts a different perspective. From the vantage point of Torah, everything is “supernatural”—including nature. Nature itself is a miracle, created by the hand of G-d; without His charge, “Let there be . . . ,” it would have remained nothingness. Do your lungs work properly? If so, give thanks to G-d for that. The natural functions of your body have concealed within them the hand of G-d; without Him they would not continue. That tree and that sunset are not just a beautiful tree and a glorious sunset; they are the manifestation of G-d Himself through His creations. These two perspectives, science and Torah are, of course, not mutually exclusive. The physician who is a Torah Jew will use all his professional skill to treat his patient, and remain sufficiently humble to recite some Tehillim (Psalms) as well. Or, we might express the same thought in reverse; the Torah Jew who is a physician will offer prayers for his patient, but at the same time employ all his medical skills to treat him. Two different perspectives may both be valid. A physicist might see a sunset as a refraction of light rays, while a painter might view the same scene as a cascade of colors. Rabbi Chaim Brisker (a nineteenth-century great Torah luminary), observed a sunset on Yom Kippur and described it as the atoning power of the Day of Forgiveness slowly sinking below the horizon—an unusual perspective but a perfectly valid one. Miracles, certainly the miracles of nature, are with us, all the time. But, repeating the original question, why don’t “supernatural” miracles, the miracles of the second order, happen anymore today? Let us try to answer that question without entering into the various views on the purpose of the Biblical miracles. Take as our case in point the parting of the Red Sea. We are told (Exodus 14:31) that Israel “beheld the hand of G-d” at the Red Sea. The Children of Israel recognized the miracle for what it was. Those generations of the Biblical era, to which it was given to witness miracles, had the capability of accepting them as such, and of being impressed. Then, these ancients implemented their recognition of the “hand of G-d” by living in accordance with the “word of G-d,” because they had experienced Him directly and personally. The generations of antiquity lived in a pre-scientific age. G-d wanted to show them that there was a Power greater than wealth and the chariots of Pharaoh, greater than the waves of the sea, and they were prepared to learn the lesson which the miracle had been intended to teach. But people have changed since then. If we were to gather at the banks of the Mississippi River today and I were to promise that at dawn the next morning, I would strike the river with a staff and the waters would part and then, the next morning, I would indeed strike that river a mighty blow and the waters would really part, what would you say? That G-d sent me? That it was a miracle? Or would you suggest that it was a trick which I performed with the aid of a ton of Jell-O under the levee or some other sleight of hand? Or, if we were to meet tomorrow at that mountain in the Sinai desert and to hear a voice thundering forth from a cloud, would we declare that this must be the voice of G-d, or would we suspect the presence of a hidden loudspeaker or some other gadget? The question we should ask is not whether miracles do or do not happen today, and why, but what effect miracles have upon us. Miracles show man that G-d is master over nature, over all the world. Miracles are a form of communication, but communication needs two partners. To be sure, G-d can perform miracles, but how would we react to them? Perhaps, when we are ready for miracles, when we are able to recognize a miracle when we see one, it will be given us to witness miracles. But then, is it really true that the kind of miracles that are described in the Bible never occur today? I am not a military strategist, but how about the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel’s crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur war and the Entebbe rescue? And, more recently, the Gulf War scuds, the fall of Communism, and the massive Jewish emigration form the former Soviet Union? I have read many explanations of these events, but frankly, I find it easier to perceive them as miracles which reveal the hand of G-d in the history of man rather than to accept the “rational” explanations.
Excerpted from Think Jewish: A Contemporary View of Judaism, a Jewish View of Today’s World, [Kesher Press: Nashville, TN, 1978] Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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