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 efforts.
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 is impeccable.
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 miracles?
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 Beresheit, 6:19.
Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Shmuel I, 16:2.
Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershom (Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, p 91.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 6:2.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 13:16.
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 28:11.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), Torat Hashem Temima