Parshat Bo – Living a ‘miracle’

This week’s Torah portion – Parshat Bo – is similar to the previous one, Parshat Va’era, in the abundance of miracles that defy the laws of nature.

THE NAHAL MAKOCH Nature Reserve 370 (photo credit: Roee Simon/SPNI)
THE NAHAL MAKOCH Nature Reserve 370
(photo credit: Roee Simon/SPNI)
This week’s Torah portion – Parshat Bo – is similar to the previous one, Parshat Va’era, in the abundance of miracles that defy the laws of nature: Makat Arbeh, the mass of locusts that came to Egypt and covered its skies; Makat Hosheh, three days without sun in Egypt; Makat Bechorot, the sudden and immediate death of every firstborn in Egypt; and the greatest miracle of them all – the liberation of Am Yisrael from slavery and their Exodus from Egypt on their way to the Eretz Canaan, as Eretz Yisrael was termed in those days.
When we read about these miracles, we sometimes feel removed from those events that 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 operating. 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? One who grappled with this question was the Ramban (Nachmanides, of the great Spanish sages of the 13th century) in his commentary on our Torah portion. The Ramban’s answer is deep and thorough. Let us look at the conclusion of his answer where he summarizes his approach to the significance of miracles in our lives. He writes as follows: “And from the large and famous miracles, man gives thanks for the hidden miracles which are the basis for the entire Torah… Until we believe in all our words and instances that they are all miracles, they are not the result of nature and the way of the world… Everything is decreed from above.”
(The Ramban on the Torah, Exodus 13:16) With these words, the Ramban challenges the very concept of “laws of nature” and claims that nature is nothing but a miracle! But there are two types of miracles. One is overt, manifest, such as the ones we read about in this week’s parsha, 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 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, and that is: 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 to this question.
As opposed to science, the Torah deals only with the question of Why, and not with the questions of What or How. This is the real reason why 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, and so 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 regularly according to rules other than the ones we know, and the Creator of the Universe decided that they will function in a certain way. During specific and rare occasions, the Creator decided to make nature work according to other rules – and this is what we call a miracle. But in actuality, every miracle is a determination of the functioning laws of nature – temporarily – in a different manner from the regular laws of nature.
If so, the Ramban teaches us, when we read in the Torah about miracles that occurred sometime in history, we must conclude from this that all laws of nature constitute one big miracle. But since we got used to these laws of nature for which, to reiterate, we do not know a reason for their continuity, we take them for granted. This fact, that we got used to laws of nature and they do not cause wonderment, “breaks” when we read about miracles that defied the laws of nature.
This reading reminds us that the Creator of the Universe, who administered nature at different times in contrast to the usual laws, is the One who decided on the laws upon which nature always functions.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites.