The Rabbi of Pezinok, nowadays in Slovakia, once guided a prospective convert through the process of becoming a Jew, in contravention of local laws that forbade conversion without governmental license (retold in Hemed Shlomo). The prospective convert completed the process, leaving only his circumcision to finalize his new status.
Alas, following the circumcision the flow of blood could not be stemmed and the unfortunate convert found himself in tremendous pain. Because the conversion was illegal a qualified doctor could not be called lest the authorities hear of the crime. A great fear settled on the Jewish community and no one knew what to do.
The rabbi decided that he and the convert would quickly travel to the great Hatam Sofer (1762-1839) and seek the scholar's counsel. Upon arrival in Pressburg, the Hatam Sofer heard their tale and sadly told them, "I have no advice for you. The only course is for the two of you to travel to the Duna River and drown yourselves for the sake of God's name."
The poor convert and rabbi heard the suggestion of the Hatam Sofer and decided that they had no choice. On the way to their death, after they had covered a considerable portion of the distance, they met an elderly man who warned them, "Where are you going? It is dangerous here! The river is wild and may sweep you to your death!" After repeated inquiries, the duo eventually told the elderly man why they had come to the area.
"You need not take that recommendation, for I am an expert circumciser and I have a powder that when thrown at the wound slows the blood and prevents the pain." Immediately the old man took the powder and the convert's throbbing subsided.
Naturally the rabbi and the convert wanted to thank their kind helper and offer to take him to his destination. Yet, when they turned, they realized that he had disappeared. Their conclusion was obvious - it must have been Elijah the prophet who attends every circumcision!
They hurried back to the Hatam Sofer's house to tell of their miraculous salvation. They reported the entire episode and then the Rabbi asked: "Why did you need to command us to go and throw ourselves in the river, couldn't you have sent Elijah straight to our town?"
The Hatam Sofer jumped up, "Do you think that without self-sacrifice Elijah would appear to you?! Only once you demonstrated your willingness to go beyond your human limits to sanctify the name of God, can you hope for a miraculous appearance by Elijah."
The Hatam Sofer's admonition is the thrust of a talmudic exchange (B. Berachot 20a).
Rav Pappa asked Abaye, "Why do we not merit miracles as did earlier generations?"
Abaye responded, "Earlier generations sacrificed themselves to sanctify God's name. Having gone beyond what was required of them, they could ask the Almighty to transcend the boundaries of nature and perform miracles for them."
The idea that we need to show a willingness to transcend our own boundaries before we can expect Divine assistance is a theme that runs through much of our literature.
The Mishna details ten wonders that occurred in the Temple (M. Avot 5:5). In this list we find that during the thrice yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when the Temple courtyard would be packed, people stood tightly pressed together. Yet when they bowed down, miraculously they prostrated themselves with ease.
We can ask: Why not miraculously let them stand with ease as well? Once the throngs of people were willing to stretch their own comfort boundaries for the opportunity of standing in the courtyard of the Temple, the borders of that physical space expanded to grant them more room.
In a similar vein we find the recently freed Jewish People standing at the edge of the Reed Sea with the Egyptian soldiers charging behind them, crying out to God for assistance in this dire predicament. The Almighty responds to Moses' entreaties, "Why are you crying out to me. Speak to the Children of Israel and they should travel!" The raging sea, however, doesn't split until Nahshon courageously enters the waters and are about to engulf him (Exodus 14:15; B. Sota 37a). Again we see that for Divine assistance we need to take that first extraordinary step.
A final tale (Kohelet Rabba 1:1): Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa saw his fellow townspeople taking various offerings to Jerusalem, "Everyone is taking offerings up to Jerusalem, but I take nothing?"
With this in mind he went to the empty lands outside the city and found a rock. He chipped it, chiseled it and polished it, and proclaimed: "Behold I take upon myself to take it up to Jerusalem!"
Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa then sought to hire workers to transport the stone and five men chanced to come his way. The workers agreed to lug the boulder for a significant charge. The sage, however, did not have such a sum on him and the workers moved on.
Hiding their identity, five angels appeared and made a similar offer Though they did not demand immediate payment they had an added stipulation, "On condition that you bear some of the weight." To be sure, the angels could have conveyed the stone without assistance. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa accepted the offer, placing his hand beneath rock.
When they reached Jerusalem, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa looked for the workers to pay their wages but they were no where to be found. His repeated inquiries led the sages to the conclusion that angels had carried his stone.
We often wish for supernatural intervention, magical salvation that defies the course of nature, yet a question we may pose to ourselves is: Are we willing to go beyond our own limits, to act in ways that defy how we define ourselves, transcending the contours of our self-image for the sake of the One from who we are requesting assistance? People who are unwilling to depart from their preconceived boundaries cannot expect God to stray from the natural boundaries of this physical world.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.