- Torah Perspectives on Miracles
- Rabbi Bernard Fox
I. Introduction Attitudes Towards Miracles
In my many years as an educator I have discovered that there
are some questions that are repeatedly raised by students. One
of these common questions relates to the phenomenon of miracles.
Students want to know: How prevalent are miracles? Is a miracle
a unique and uncommon event? Are miracles occurring on a regular
basis? When we pray to Hashem for the health or recovery of a
dear friend, are we asking the Almighty to perform a subtle miracle?
If we are not asking for a miracle, then what are we asking from
Hashem? Popular religious literature adds to the confusion. We
are all familiar with works that claim that miracles are occurring
all the time. These books provide compilations of unusual recoveries
or rescues from disaster. The author suggests that miracles are
far more common than we might expect and that, indeed, the careful
observer can find overwhelming evidence of small miracles in
everyday life. It is not my purpose to resolve all of these questions.
Instead, I hope to provide an overview of traditional Torah perspectives.
I believe that this overview will provide a basis for responding
to the various questions outlined above.
II. Are Miracles a Good Thing?
We have all had the experience of hoping for a miracle. Perhaps
a friend or relative is struggling with a life-threatening illness.
His prognosis is poor. The doctors tell us that our loved one
can be saved only by a miracle. We know what we need to do. We
pray. We devote ourselves to repentance and we hope that our
efforts will influence the Almighty to provide the needed miraculous
recovery. We need a miracle and we unequivocally regard the miracle
as positive outcome.
The history of the Jewish People is intertwined with wondrous,
astounding miracles. We were redeemed from Egypt through a series
of ten miraculous plagues and the splitting of the Reed Sea.
Moshe brought forth water from a rock. Our ancestors were sustained
in the wilderness by the manna. These wonders are a part of the
shared history that binds us as a people. So, if we are asked
whether miracles are a good thing, we are likely to respond with
an unequivocal "yes!" Yet, our Sages are far less enthusiastic
in their attitude towards miracles. In fact, if we consider their
numerous statements on the subject of miracles, we can detect
a clearly negative attitude. At the very least we must acknowledge
that the attitude of our Sages is far more complicated than the
popular attitude of resounding enthusiasm.
A student once asked me, "Why doesn't Hashem perform an
overt miracle for our generation?" After all, Hashem wants
us to believe in Him. Imagine the impact if He split Lake Erie
or in Seattle we would refer to Lake Washington. What about
stopping the travel of the sun through the sky? A day would not
be necessary. Just an hour would be enough to provide a fitting
demonstration of Hashem's omnipotence. Nachmanides responds to
this issue. He explains that such requests are completely inappropriate.
He tells us that it is not G-d's will to perform miracles. Apparently,
Nachmanides thinks that since the Almighty does not completely
"approve" of miracles, we need to make do with the
existing evidence of His existence and omnipotence. It is not
fitting for us to ask for superfluous additional demonstrations.
Not only does Nachmanides assert that the Almighty resists performing
miracles, but he also insists that when "forced" to
perform a wonder He does so with "economy". A miracle
is employed only to accomplish a result that is beyond the ability
of the human being to bring about. Nachmanides offers a simple
proof of his thesis. Hashem commanded Noach to build an ark.
Can we even imagine all the varied species that the ark was required
to house? How could Noach's ark have held all the species that
occupy the earth? Nachmanides explains that Hashem employed a
miracle. The limited space of the ark miraculously accommodated
all of the species. Now, Nachmanides realizes that this claim
exposes him to an obvious objection. If Hashem could not ask
Noach to build a vessel large enough to house all of the species
and a miracle was an inevitable necessity why bother
Noach with building a huge vessel? Why didn't Hashem settle for
commanding Noach to build a little bath toy-size ark? In any
event, Hashem would need to perform a miracle to cram everything
into Noach's boat. So, why not just go easy on Noach? Nachmanides
responds that Hashem prefers small miracles. To the extent that
He can minimize a miracle, He does so. Noach was required to
build the largest feasible vessel. Hashem only employed a miracle
to supplement the efforts of Noach not to replace these
Rabbaynu David Kimchi Radak adds another dimension
to Hashem's policy of conservation of miracles. Not only does
Hashem resist performing miracles, and when "forced"
to perform one, does so minimally; but He also prefers to hide
His work. Hidden miracles are preferable to astounding wonders.
Radak has no problem citing various examples to prove his point.
Hashem commanded Shmuel the prophet to anoint David as King.
Shaul would not be thrilled. Hashem instructed Shmuel to conceal
his intent from Shaul. Hashem would make sure that Shaul did
not stop Shmuel from fulfilling his mission. But the Almighty
preferred to do so by quietly working behind the scenes. He wished
to avoid an open confrontation that would require an explicit
miracle. Radak summarizes his thesis. Hashem prefers to clothe
His miracles within the pattern of natural events rather than
overtly overturn natural patterns. In short, our Sages teach
that Hashem is less than enthusiastic about miracles. His conservative
tendency expresses itself in three ways: Hashem does not favor
the performance of miracles. He performs miracles only "reluctantly."
When Hashem must perform a miracle, He minimizes it. Hashem prefers
to incorporate His miracles into the normative patterns of nature.
III. Why all the Resistance?
Remember the student who asked, "Why doesn't Hashem perform
a miracle for us?" Well, he wasn't impressed. So, Hashem
has all these rules about miracles. But what's all the resistance
about? Why doesn't Hashem want to perform miracles? Why does
He minimize and even hide His wonders? Well, this is a more difficult
question to answer. However, Gershonides does have quite a bit
to say on this issue. And his comments provide an essential insight
into the thinking of our Sages. Gershonides feels that we are
a misguided bunch. We are impressed by miracles. So, we don't
understand why Hashem doesn't perform more and greater feats.
But miracles are not nearly as impressive as the laws that govern
the universe. We take for granted the majesty of the universe.
Here I am typing out this article. My fingers move across the
keys of my laptop albeit not too efficiently. No big deal!
But wait; let's think about that for a moment. Are a finger and
its function so simple? Can a MIT engineer create a manipulative
machine that is as efficient as a finger? What about a simple
spider? How many brilliant engineers does it take to make a mechanical
spider? And these are just a few of G-d's second-rate inventions.
He has a whole universe full of inventions, and He even created
the laws that govern their functions. That's impressive! Any
miracle at some level interrupts the operations of
the natural universe. Gershonides explains that Hashem did not
create the most possibly perfect universe just so He could turn
around and interrupt its perfect functioning. Hashem seeks to
avoid miracles interruptions of nature. When He must interfere
with nature, He does so minimally. And He preserves as much of
the existing patterns of nature as possible. Let's consider an
analogy that captures Gershonides' point. Imagine a beautiful
tapestry hanging in your living-room. Oh, Oh! Your child spilled
some wine on the floor. Happens every Shabbat. Well, don't worry;
little Shmulie will just use that tapestry to wipe it up! Now,
I will bet this little story did not make you feel real happy.
But this story exactly describes a miracle. We spill, and Hashem
needs to clean up our mess. He would prefer not to use the tapestry
of the universe. And if He must He prefers to use a corner.
And if He can, He uses the blue corner so that the stain in the
tapestry will not be very noticeable.
IV. What's So Important About Miracles?
Most of us get the "warm fuzzys" from miracles. It's
nice to think that the omnipotent Creator is performing wonderful
miracles just for us. But I have discovered that some students
would rather disregard miracles. To them, miracles verge on the
magical and superstitious. They thought they could leave behind
belief in miracles with their abandonment of Sleeping Beauty.
So, this raises the question of whether it is important to believe
in miracles. Nachmanides asserts that acceptance of the truth
of miracles is essential to the Torah. He offers a number of
reasons for his claim. However, he stresses one reason over and
again. Without miracles, there is no reward and punishment. There
can be no providence. This may seem to be an astounding assertion.
But if we think about it, we will realize that Nachmanides' logic
Let's think about rewards. Every Torah studies teacher knows
that students love a siyum a celebration for the completion
of some body of Torah knowledge. So, I can imagine my students
coming to me and asking if we can have a siyum. They are asking
because a siyum is not something that will happen by itself.
There is no natural law that produces a siyum when students complete
a section of the Talmud or Chumash. We will need to plan the
siyum the students may hope that the planning alone will
take the better part of a period. So, the reward of the siyum
will require some intervention in the natural order. This is
true about all rewards. Think of Hashem rewarding a person with
extraordinary wealth a very popular reward. The very contention
that this fortunate person has been rewarded with wealth assumes
that this wealth was not otherwise included in his destiny. Of
course, the same analysis applies to punishments. When a person
is punished, we can implicitly conclude that the misfortune the
person experiences was not otherwise destined to befall him.
And providence is nothing other that the Almighty guiding events
to produce a specific outcome. Well, if guidance is needed, apparently
the outcome would not have naturally occurred. It is important
to notice that according to Nachmanides, miracles may be occurring
all around us. A miracle need not be an astounding and awe-inspiring
act. It can be a simple and subtle manipulation of nature. Perhaps,
Hashem causes a wind to blow. The wind pushes a flowerpot off
a windowsill. The pot crashes onto the head of a passerby that
just sold crack to a minor. Hashem smashes his head with a little
subtle and invisible intervention into the natural
course of events. Who knows where the hand of G-d is at work?
Nachmanides adds that these little miracles are not second-rate.
They deserve to be referred to as miracles every bit as much
as the marquee miracles like the splitting of the Reed
Sea. Nachmanides even implies that one of the reasons Hashem
performed the visible wonders recorded in Tanach was to provide
evidence of these smaller, more subtle "everyday" miracles.
Let's summarize Nachmanides' view on the importance of miracles
within the Torah. Reward, punishment, and providence are possible
only through miracles. Sometimes miracles are small, unobservable
interruptions in the natural chain of events. The observable
wonders described in Tanach provide evidence of the existence
of subtle, invisible miracles.
V. Are Those Wonders in the Torah Really Miracles?
Note that, according to Nachmanides, the awe-inspiring miracles
described in the Torah give evidence of Hashem's smaller, more
subtle miracles. In other words, of course the splitting of the
Reed Sea was a miracle. Joshua's suspension of the transit of
the sun across the skies was a miracle. Well, maybe not. Our
Sages make a very strange claim regarding these manifest miracles.
They tell us that the Almighty made an agreement at the time
of creation with the waters of the earth. He instructed the waters
that in the future they would separate in order to rescue the
Jewish People and to drown the Egyptians. The Sages list various
other manifest wonders. According to the Sages all of these wonders
were the result of agreements established by Hashem from the
time of creation. At first glance this seems like a rather far-fetched
way to explain these manifest miracles. However, Maimonides explains
the Sages' reasoning. He contends that the Sages are bothered
by a problem. They maintain that the Almighty created the universe
and endowed it with an immutable nature. G-d does not reverse
or suspend nature. Of course, manifest miracles would seem to
contradict this contention. Water's nature is to flow. By nature
it does not form solid walls for the Jewish People and then conveniently
collapse on their enemies. How can manifest miracles be reconciled
with the contention that nature is immutable? Well, the Sages
were ready for this question. They responded that some elements
of nature are not always obvious. A particular expression of
nature may only become evident at a specific moment in time.
When we see this expression of nature, we think it is a suspension
of nature. But really we are just seeing an uncommon expression
of nature. An illustration may help. Imagine I develop a software
program. This program is designed to display a clock on my monitor
at exactly 12:00 PM every day. The clock reads 12:00 PM. However,
being a little mischievous, I incorporate a secret, little sub-routine
into this program. At 12:00 PM on July 4, 2003, it causes an
image of fireworks to appear on the monitor. I sell the program
to an unsuspecting user. For months the program works exactly
as advertised. But on the fateful July 4th, while the user is
completing his overdue tax return, a fireworks display suddenly
explodes on his monitor. Now, our unsuspecting taxpayer will
think he somehow picked-up a virus. He will start scouring his
hard-drive for the infection. But he will never find it. He is
assuming that some virus has interrupted the regular operation
of his software. In reality, this bizarre display was preprogrammed
to occur from the time he installed my little clock program.
The Sages are arguing that all the manifest miracles recorded
in Tanach were preprogrammed into the scheme of nature from the
time of creation. The programming may only produce the wonder
that we mistakenly identify as a manifest suspension of
nature on a single unique occasion. But nonetheless, this
event is not a suspension of nature. It is an expression of nature.
VI. Maimonides Takes on the Sages
Maimonides indicates that he does not himself ascribe to this
explanation of manifest wonders. He prefers to view these wonders
as suspensions of nature. These wonders are miracles in every
sense. Nature is countermanded by the intervention of the Almighty.
My rebbe Rabbi Israel Chait explained the basis for
this dispute between Maimonides and the Sages. But before considering
his explanation, let's take a look at another remark of Maimonides.
Maimonides asserts that Hashem who is perfect made
a perfect universe. In describing the universe's perfection,
he explains that no element of the universe is superfluous. This
universal "economy" is part of its very perfection.
Every element of our universe has a purpose and function. No
element is unnecessary. Let me explain the significance of this
statement with a little story. I have a good friend who purchased
a Lincoln Town Car. We'll let him go unnamed. Now, this was a
wonderful car. It had every conceivable convenience. I am not
sure what all the conveniences were. But I am sure that Ford
explored the most extreme limits of luxury in designing this
traveling spa. Now, I have another friend who also had a very
expensive car. It was an imported sports car. It did not have
too many luxury features. It didn't have a phone. No thermometer
indicated the temperature outside. I would not be surprised if
it wasn't air-conditioned. But that car could accelerate from
zero to sixty fast enough to paste you to the seat. Which car
was more perfect? Well, the answer lies in your definition of
perfection. If perfection means pure mechanical efficiency, the
sports car wins. The Lincoln isn't in its league. No one would
think of putting the Lincoln on a track with the sports car.
But if perfection means comprehensive options designed to satisfy
every whim of the driver, the sports car is outclassed. The moral
of my story is that perfection can be defined in different ways.
It can be defined in terms of efficiency or in terms of comprehensiveness.
But these two definitions are often mutually exclusive. The elements
that create perfection in the sense of comprehensiveness are
superfluous to the perfection of efficiency. The sports car excels
in efficiency at the expense of comprehensiveness. The Lincoln
can boast comprehensive design. But pure efficiency is sacrificed.
Now, we are ready to consider Rabbi Chait's explanation of the
dispute between Maimonides and the Sages. The Sages define the
prefect universe as a comprehensive universe. In the universe
envisioned by the Sages, every future need is preprogrammed into
nature even the need for the Reed Sea to separate. But
Maimonides preferred sports cars. His universe is a Porsche.
The design places a premium on efficiency. From this perspective,
a subroutine in nature that is needed for one single moment in
the history on humankind is superfluous. So, rather than create
a universe burdened by subroutines that are inactive for most
of the life of the universe, the Creator focused on sleek efficiency.
When the unique moment arose at which it was necessary for the
waters to separate, the Almighty intervened and worked a miracle.
Let's summarize these two perspectives: According to our Sages,
the manifest miracles recorded in Tanach were preprogrammed into
nature. The Sages come to this conclusion because they defined
the nature's perfection as its comprehensiveness. According to
Maimonides, manifest miracles involve an intervention into nature.
Maimonides takes this position because he defines the universe's
perfection in terms of its efficiency.
VII. Nachmanides Knocks Maimonides
What discussion of Torah thought can be complete without defining
some area of dispute between two of our greatest giants
Maimonides and Nachmanides? If you have followed this rather
lengthy discussion of miracles, you may have felt that two divergent
views of the universe have emerged. Maimonides champions the
idea of a rather static, unchanging universe. True, he does not
go as far as the Sages. But he applauds the reasoning behind
their perspective. The Creator fashioned a perfect universe and
nature is constant with the possible exception of a handful
of rather grand Divine interventions. Nachmanides presents a
different universe. There are laws and natural order. But hidden
interventions are taking place with some regularity. If you feel
that these views are somewhat divergent, you have good company.
Nachmanides also contends that his view differs drastically from
that of Maimonides. And Nachmanides makes a convincing argument
for his point of view. Can Maimonides deny that the Torah promises
rewards and punishments in this world? Does Maimonides deny providence?
Certainly reward, punishment and all expressions of providence
involve an interruption in the natural course of events! So,
how can Maimonides describe nature as basically immutable when
he must acknowledge the regular occurrence of subtle, hidden
I would like to offer a possible explanation of this dispute.
I hope the reader can endure another illustrative story. I have
the honor of being the principal of a yeshiva high school. My
objective in running this school is to educate students. But
I do not devote all of my time and effort into educational matters.
Strangely enough, I spend a tremendous amount of time fending
off the threat of financial bankruptcy. But my objective is not
to create a financially stable institution I guess that
shows. My objective is to deliver education. Financial stability
is an important means to that end. We cannot educate without
funding. But education is the ultimate objective. This has some
interesting implications. I will initiate programs that are not
profitable. We will offer courses that may lose money. Conversely,
I would not initiate a program that would jeopardize the education
of the students even if this program might bring in some needed
funding. This is a consequence of recognizing the difference
between the means and the ends. I suggest that Maimonides applies
the same analysis to the structure of the universe. Nature is
composed of various patterns. The sun rises and sets. It rains
in Seattle in the winter and most of the rest of the year.
These are patterns of nature. But these patterns do not occur
spontaneously. They are the result of a causal chain of events.
Weather patterns are the result of a complicated and intricate
combination of causal factors. If we apply the model described
above, we can say that causality is the means through which the
patterns of nature are maintained. But it is these patterns that
make up the final product we recognize as the familiar nature
of the universe. Causality is the behind-the-scenes mechanism
through which these patterns are maintained. Maimonides defines
the universe's perfection as the cohesive and efficient function
of nature's patterns. True, these patterns of nature are determined
and maintained by an intricate system of causality. But the universe's
perfection does not lie in the immutability of causal systems.
The perfection is expressed through the patterns that emerge
in nature. Therefore, Maimonides contends that the essential
expression of the universe's perfection the patterns of
nature is basically immutable. He readily acknowledges
that interruptions occur in the chain of causality. But these
subtle interruptions do not interfere with the essential element
of the universe's perfection nature's patterns. It is because
these subtle interruptions occur at the level of causality and
they do not interfere with the overall patterns that they are
hidden. In other words, essentially G-d's will primarily relates
to maintaining the perfection of nature's patterns. He treats
causality as only a means. So, Maimonides can maintain that the
Almighty's universe is immutable in its essential features and,
at the same time, allow for hidden manipulation of causality.
Nachmanides seems to regard causality as far more than a means
of maintaining the broad patterns of nature. Instead, causality
is a basic structure and theme of the universe. From his perspective,
any breach in the chain of causality involves a "compromise"
of Hashem's will to maintain a universe guided by cause and effect.
An interruption in the causal chain cannot be dismissed as insignificant
simply because it is not visible. In this sense there is no difference
between Hashem causing it to rain and His separating the waters
of the Reed Sea. Both are interruptions in the causal chain.
VIII. Why Miracles?
This discussion would be incomplete without a closing thought
on the purpose of miracles. I have explored to some extent the
divergences of opinion regarding the prevalence of miracles.
But as outlined from the outset, all of these authorities are
less than enthusiastic about miracles. They all agree that the
Creator does not lightly override nature. If this is the case,
why does He sacrifice His prefect creation for the purpose of
performing a miracle? I believe that the answer is alluded to
in a well-know teaching of our Sages. The Torah tells us that
when Yaakov was fleeing from his father's home to the home of
Lavan, he stopped along the way to rest for the night. He formed
a stone support for his head. It can be understood from the Chumash,
that to create this support, Yaakov took a number of stones,
which he placed under his head. Later, the Chumash explains that
Yaakov took "the stone" upon which he had rested his
head and made it into a pillar. This pillar he anointed with
oil and designated as a monument. The Chumash seems ambiguous
regarding the number of stones that Yaakov used. First, the Chumash
indicates that there was a plurality of stones; while latter
it mentions a single stone. Rashi quotes the Talmud in Tractate
Chullin. He explains that Yaakov chose a group of stones. During
the night, these stones began to argue. Each vied for the honor
of supporting the head of the righteous Yaakov. The Almighty
resolved this debate by combining the individual stones into
one large rock. The meaning of Rashi's comments can be understood
within the context of the dream that Yaakov had that night. In
his dream, Yaakov was assured by G-d that during his sojourn
with Lavan, he would continue to experience G-d's providence.
He would return to the house of his father, physically and spiritually
unharmed. I believe that the Sages are depicted through the parable
of the stones the workings of the providence promised to Yaakov
in his dream. The Almighty created a universe governed by nature.
Each element of nature is a result of G-d's wisdom. The elements
are designed to guide the universe in the best possible manner.
However, on occasion, nature produces outcomes detrimental to
humankind. The laws or patterns that govern weather are an excellent
example. These laws produce the climate and the seasons that
provide the human race with sustenance and comfort. Rain falls
to nourish crops. A drier season follows, during which the produce
is harvested. Seasonal variations in temperature remain within
the range that supports life. However, sometimes, these same,
magnificent laws can produce catastrophe. Hurricanes, tornadoes
and floods do not happen every day. Yet, they are the outcome
of the same wonderful laws that express G-d's benevolence towards
humanity. However, one of Hashem's objectives in the creation
and fashioning of the universe was to reveal Himself to humanity.
This objective is fulfilled through the development and life
of the tzadik. So, both the perfection of the material universe
and the development of the tzadik are important objectives within
creation. What happens when these two objectives come into conflict?
What happens when the perfect material universe in the
natural course of events threatens to bring harm to the
tzadik? Providence involves the Almighty intervening into nature
on behalf of the righteous to prevent catastrophes that would
otherwise naturally occur.
We can now understand the parable of the rocks. The rocks represent
the individual elements of nature. Each is a reflection of G-d's
wisdom. Each wants to support the head of the tzadik. This means
that each element of nature is designed to support humanity.
However, on occasion, these laws or elements of nature come into
conflict, and disaster can result. Volcanoes, hurricanes and
other natural disasters are not failures in nature. These events
are the result of the individual elements of nature combining
in an unfortunate manner. Just as the rocks argued, these elements
of nature come into conflict.
Hashem does not always intervene to avert these disasters. Sometimes
He allows the elements of nature to combine according to the
natural laws and produce a disaster. But sometimes He does intervene
and resolves the conflict that would produce a natural disaster.
Providence involves G-d's intervention in this conflict. The
Almighty alters nature for the benefit of the righteous. Thus,
the individual rocks are combined into a single rock. This represents
the intervention of providence. The many individual elements
of nature coordinated into one system that produces the best
result for the righteous individual.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman
(Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 6:16.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer
Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Shmuel I,
Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershom (Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer
Beresheit, p 91.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer
Midrash Rabbah, Sefer Beresheit, 5:4.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), Moreh Nevuchim, Volume
2, chapter 29.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), Moreh Nevuchim, Volume
2, chapter 28.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Torat Hashem Temima.
Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Torat Hashem Temima