This week’s Torah portion is similar to the previous one, Va’eira, concerning the abundance of miracles that defy the laws of nature. These include the plague of locusts that swept Egypt and covered its skies; the plague of darkness, when there was no sun in Egypt for three days; the slaying of the first born, with the sudden and immediate death of every firstborn in Egypt; and the greatest miracle of them all – the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and their exodus from Egypt as they made their way to Canaan, as the Land of Israel was known then.
When we read about these miracles, we sometimes feel removed from these events, which took place in the distant past. We do not experience miracles in our day-to-day lives. The laws of nature continue as always, and we do not expect them to change or cease. And we ask ourselves: What do miracles have to do with us? What do we get from these Torah stories that describe such huge aberrations from the laws of nature?
Someone who grappled with this question was the Ramban (also known as Nachmanides, the great Spanish sage of the 13th century) in his commentary on our Torah portion. His answer is deep and thorough. He summarizes his approach to the significance of miracles in our lives:
“And from the large and famous miracles, man gives thanks for the hidden miracles that are the basis for the entire Torah… until we believe in all our words and in every instance that they are all miracles; they are not the result of nature and the way of the world… Everything is decreed from above.”Ramban on Exodus 13:16
“And from the large and famous miracles, man gives thanks for the hidden miracles that are the basis for the entire Torah… until we believe in all our words and in every instance that they are all miracles; they are not the result of nature and the way of the world… Everything is decreed from above” (Ramban on Exodus 13:16).
Nachmanides is challenging the very concept of “laws of nature” and claims that all nature is a miracle! But there are two types of miracles. One is overt and manifest, similar to those miracles that we read about in this week’s Torah portion, whereby man notices them. The other is concealed – which is actually the laws of nature.
WHY ARE the laws of nature defined as “miracles”?
Countless scientists, over thousands of years, have researched the laws of nature. As a result of this research, humanity has progressed in many varied fields – progress that grows exponentially from generation to generation. But there is one question that no scientist has been able, or has even tried, to answer: Why is this so?
Science deals with the questions of “what” and “how,” but not with the question of “why.” Scientists do not try to deal with the issue of why nature works according to fixed rules and are also incapable of providing answers for this.
In contrast to science, the Torah deals only with the question of “why,” and not with the questions of “what” or “how.” This is the reason that people who are very familiar with both the Torah and the world of science do not get excited about claims of seeming contradictions between the two, since they understand that the Torah and science do not deal with a common area; therefore, there is no possibility for a contradiction between them.
Now we can understand why the Ramban defines the laws of nature as “miracles,” since if we do not know the reason why the laws of nature with which we are familiar were fixed, then there is actually no difference between nature and miracles.
Nature could have worked according to rules other than the ones we know, with God deciding how they should function. During specific and rare occasions, God decided to make nature work according to other rules. This is what we call a miracle. But every “miracle” is actually a law of nature that functions – temporarily – in a different way from the usual laws of nature.
If that is the case, according to the Ramban, when the Torah mentions instances of miracles, we must conclude that all laws of nature constitute one big miracle. But we take these laws of nature for granted, since we’ve gotten used to them, even though we do not know the reason for their continuity.
The view that certain laws of nature do not cause wonderment, because we’ve become accustomed to them, doesn’t hold up when we read about the miracles that defied the laws of nature. It is a reminder that the Creator – who at times changed the laws of nature from what we have come to expect – is the one who decided on the laws upon which nature functions.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.