Parashat Balak: Does God perform supernatural acts?

Perhaps their last-minute creation reflects God’s own ambivalence with the concept of creating a world with supernatural elements and possibilities.

 TWILIGHT: ‘A period of uncertainty.’  (photo credit: Shyam/Unsplash)
TWILIGHT: ‘A period of uncertainty.’
(photo credit: Shyam/Unsplash)

We read in an extraordinary Mishnah (Pirke Avot 5:6) that 10 things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight: “the mouth of the earth, which swallowed up Korah and his followers (Num. 16:32); the mouth of the well that accompanied the Children of Israel in the desert known as Miriam’s Well (Num 20:1-2); the mouth of the donkey that spoke to Bilam in this week’s parasha (Num 22:22-35); the rainbow at the end of the Flood (Gen 9:13); the manna that fed the Children of Israel in the desert (Ex 16:15); the staff of Moses (Ex 4:17); the shamir – a stone-cutting worm used on the stones selected for building the Temple (Gittin 68a); the letters of the 10 Commandments and the tablets of the 10 Commandments (both in Ex 32:16); and the shape of those letters (Maimonides).

Remarkable for a number of reasons, the Mishnah in Pirke Avot (5:6) raises questions. Why were these items created at twilight at the end of the first workweek of Creation? Why then and not at another time? Why these 10? Why are they presented in this particular order? Why reframe supernatural phenomena as natural?

According to this Mishnah, God created these 10 items during the very last possible moments before the first Shabbat.

Were they created then because they were the most important, the pinnacle of Creation? Or were they created as an afterthought?

Was God ambivalent over creating the supernatural?

Perhaps their last-minute creation reflects God’s own ambivalence with the concept of creating a world with supernatural elements and possibilities.

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

Concerning revelation, we learn that, “Rabbi Aha said: ‘One can learn from God, when God was about to teach the Torah to Israel, God went over it four or five times before saying it to Israel,’” (Exodus Rabbah 40:1).

As any teacher knows, teaching methods frequently require tweaking how something is taught. When it comes to creating, adjusting is often also required.

We can imagine God going back and forth saying, “Will this world I am creating have supernatural DNA or natural DNA?”

At the last minute, according to the Mishna, God decided on natural DNA.

For Maimonides: “They do not believe that God’s will is renewed time after time, but at the very creation it was put into the nature of things to do all that they will do, whether it be a constant performance which is nature, or only rare occurrences which is a miracle and so they say it was put into the earth on the sixth day that it would split beneath Korach and his congregation...

“For example, on the second when the waters were divided, it was put into their nature that the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds) would split for Moshe… and so too all the other miracles, besides for these 10 which were put into nature at dusk.” (Perush HaMishnah Avot 5:6)

Rabbi Hyman Goldin summarizes by stating that this radical Mishna teaches that supernatural events or miracles “were really not supernatural. They were special creations made by God at the Creation, which were to take place at the time needed in the future and are therefore a part of the natural course of events.” (Goldin, Ethics of the Fathers, p. 77)

The order of the 10 items mentioned above is harder to understand; and groupings appear.

The first three begin with the same word in Hebrew, peh (“mouth”) and follow the chronological order (Num 16:32; Num 20:1-2; Num 22:22-35) of three successive parshiot – Korah, Hukkat and this week’s Balak.

The next two events have to do with preserving life and dealing with safety and food. The rainbow is placed in the sky as a sign, “so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh,” (Gen 9:15) and the manna is food, “God has given you to eat.” (Ex 16:15)

The final five items mentioned have to do with Moses, the Temple and the 10 Commandments – the creation and establishment of the religion of Israel.

And why these 10 specifically? In his in depth analysis of our Mishnah, Asher Benzion Buchman suggests in his article, “Completing Creation,” in Hakirah: the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, that “The things created at dusk are not merely the ability for natural objects to depart from nature, but the ability for humans to change and to create change… their existence will enable the goal of Creation to be reached.”

Some, he writes, “represent beliefs that it is necessary for Israel to accept and others are functions within nature that make Israel’s existence possible.”

Why at twilight?

The term for twilight is bein hashmashot, literally meaning “between the two suns.” This refers to the time between when we experience the light of the sun (day time) and when we experience the sunlight reflecting off the moon (night time). For the rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 34b), twilight is “a period of uncertainty. It is uncertain whether it consists of both day and night, it is uncertain whether it is completely day, and it is uncertain whether it is completely night.”

Perhaps this period of the day that is hard to define, to understand exactly, reflects an aspect of the human encounter with the Divine. That is to say, an event can be understood as being supernatural by some, while natural by others. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s book, Judaism Without Supernaturalism, certainly falls in with the latter school of thought. All of this begs the question of a core fundamental difference between “supernatural” and “natural” perceptions of events; the difference in believing whether or not the laws of nature can be suspended.

On another level, within that distinction lies the profound theological contrast of understanding our relationship with God as immanent or transcendent. Theologian Karen Armstrong teaches in her book Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World, that a belief “in a supernatural God” is a belief in a God “in the distant heavens,” rather than the nearer God as, “the mysterious, ineffable force that governs the natural world.”

In that light we can see that the choice between a belief in a supernatural God or a God who does not change the laws of nature at God’s whim, contains within it the great theological question: Is God transcendent and far away or immanent and close by?

It is clear that the rabbis of our Mishnah prefer a God who is more imminent, like a close friend. And so we find reference in the Book of Isaiah (41:8) of God speaking to the “seed of Abraham, My friend.” ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.