In the beginning…
In many ways the beginning of the Torah reads more like fantasy than reality. It seems mythical, because it deals with a different type of reality, at a time when the presence of God was more immanent, and felt more strongly. A time when people had direct conversations with the Creator, and the laws of nature seem much more malleable.
And I believe that while the history in the Torah is accurate, the description of that history is partly allegorical.
That being said, the presence of miracles in Genesis seems natural and fitting. If the presence of the Omnipotent were more real to us, miracles would not be such a big deal. But hyperspace to our time and place, and the same miracles would blow us away. We’d permanently change our life philosophy if confronted with any significant change in the laws of nature.
What happened between then and now? Five overlapping stages emerge …
Stage One: The Infinite Can Do Anything
Our definition of the Creator demands that He be able to do anything. He’s infinite. He can do whatever He wants. Not only can He avoid, manipulate, or even permanently change the very laws of nature that He designed, but it is effortless for Him. Yet if He designed the world with physical laws and principles, it must be that they are part of a wise design, and He wouldn’t change them unless it is highly necessary.
We see miracles in Genesis that are clearly wrought by the Infinite. Noah makes a boat and God has it miraculously filled with a pair of every type of creature. The waters miraculously flood the earth. (See Chapter 8)
A nation rises up to build a special tower in Babel and they are miraculously scattered. (See Chapter 10)
God has Sarah miraculously give birth as a centenarian (without IVF implantation). (See Chapter 21)
There are more examples but the idea of miracles in the book of Genesis seems to be – events that are clearly being done by the Almighty. Not without exception, as we see angels make Lot’s persecutors go blind, Jacob does something that might be considered magical to cause his animals to be spotted etc., Joseph does dream interpretation that borders on psychic ability, but the general approach is God does miracles.
[By the way, many people, including myself when I was younger, in states of questioning, say to themselves or God, “If you want me to believe in You, then do a miracle for me.” “I would believe in God if He did a miracle for me right now.” As myopic and narcissistic as this may be, it is a legitimate request. However, none of the miracles in Genesis appear to be for that purpose. If you are clear that an Infinite Being created this world, you don’t need miracles. If you are unclear on that fact, He does not warrant doing miracles for that purpose. But be careful what you ask for, He may not do a miracle for you , He may just give you a “sign” that obligates you to seek Him out.]
Stage Two: We Get Involved
In Exodus we not only see more miracles from God, like a burning bush, but we also see something new, we see Aaron stretching forth a staff and striking the River to turn it into blood. (See Chapter 7) God said, “I’m going to turn the water into blood.” But he had Aaron do that action that preceded the miracle. A physical action is done by man, even though the miracle is done by God.
A shift in Divine miracle philosophy perhaps?
The plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and other miracles were done through the actions of Moses or Aaron, even though it was clear that the Almighty was the one responsible for the act that defies nature.
And still a miraculous lifestyle permeated the reality of people living in this time. Manna fell from above, some people got afflicted in miraculous ways; fire came down to consume an offering etc.
Stage Three: Hand in Hand
Instead of the famous splitting of the Sea of Reeds, where it may have looked to a bystander that Moses was causing the miracle, even though we all see that it’s really God, we also see miracles that are directed by God but acted out through man. Sotah is a process of bringing a woman to the Temple where the Cohen performs an action of erasing ink on parchment into water to test her fidelity to her husband. She drinks the water and if she is guilty she miraculously falls apart, if she is innocent she miraculously gets pregnant. The Cohen is acting hand in hand with God. (See Numbers Chapter 5)
I’m not sure, but when Moses strikes a rock to bring forth water miraculously in Chapter 20, it seems different than the splitting of the sea. Moses seems to be a partner with God when he hits the rock, not just a puppet of God like when he stands at the sea.
Kabbalah describes a spiritual descent from the earlier time periods. We live with miracles like Manna, hear God speak commandments, see spirituality constantly be expressed through the physical world, but then we leave the desert and enter into the land of Israel, we are expected to live a more normal lifestyle. We are designated to be an expression of Godliness in the natural world. God hands over the reigns, so to speak …enter Stage Four
Stage Four: He Hands Over the Reigns
As a precursor to putting miracles more in the hands of mankind, the Almighty gives us a few guidelines. Magic is forbidden. Slight of hand, Bullwinkle pulling Rocky out of hat is ok. It’s a game; it’s entertainment. But trying to manipulate the laws of nature for your own benefit is forbidden. Holding a séance to contact the dead is prohibited. Using astrology or incantations is also forbidden. (See Deuteronomy Chapter 18) Why?
If you or someone else can perform magic or a miracle, the danger of idolatry hovers close by. You might believe yourself to be a god, or someone else might believe you to be a god. So it is very important that some lines are drawn. On the one hand, if you are holy, wise, and close to the Almighty, it stands to reason that He may do a miracle for you, or allow you to perform a miracle. On the other hand that’s a dangerous situation.
For that reason, we are instructed in Deuteronomy Chapter 13,
“If there should stand up in your midst a prophet or a dreamer of a dream and he will produce to you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes about, of which he spoke to you, saying, “Let us follow gods of others that you did not know and we shall worship them”, do not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of a dream, for HaShem , your God, is testing you to know whether you Love HaShem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.”
To me this is one of the most amazing statements in the Torah.
This stage leads us into the holy land. Aside from the continued miracles like Joshua splitting the sea, where the intention seems to be to show that God still loves us even though we’ve moved into the land of Israel and started to be more involved in the physical world, we also have actual people doing miraculous things on their own like when David kills Goliath, or when Samson wages war; individuals who are wise and holy are trusted to know when a miracle can and should be done. Which leads us to the fifth and final stage.
Stage Five: You Can Do It Too
Prophet Elijah causes oil and flour to continue miraculously. He revives the dead. Oddly, his disciple Elisha does the exact same miracles. (See Kings I Chapter 17) Elijah also cures bad water in Kings II Chapter 2. This is the last and final phase which continues to this day. Wise and holy people can do their own miracles. Of course, someone versed in black magic might also be able to manipulate nature in minor ways, but this is forbidden and divinely punished. God gives them just enough rope…
We also have eye witness accounts throughout the Talmud (Circa 500 c.e.) of sages defying the laws of nature. These are generally not on the scale of the flood of Noah or the tower of Babel, but “smaller miracles”. A rabbi wanted to prove something to his town, to educate them, and give them a proper perspective on life. So he gathered everyone around a known snake pit, took off his shoe and put his foot at the hole. A snake came out, bit him on the foot, and the snake died. The rabbi said, “It is not the snake that kills but the sin”. He did a minor miracle to inspire and educate.
In another Talmudic instance a poor man’s daughter told him they had no oil to light for the Sabbath lights. He said, if God can make oil light, He can make vinegar light, and so it was. It was a purely private miracle, and because the man had such an elevated consciousness that he was wholly unimpressed with such a miracle, he could rely on it.
Kabbalah can also involve the manipulation of nature, and some sages would create an animal through the study of Kabbalah, and then eat it. This seems to have been a way of study and education of the holiness of the Almighty’s Torah, not for their personal gain.
We also see instances where prayer brings rain in a drought. Prayer is a way of tapping into God. It’s not really the person who makes it rain, it is God. But the person’s prayer is the impetus for the miracle.
Although these instances were between 1500 to 2000 years ago or so, all throughout our history, there are instances of wise and holy people changing nature, even reviving the dead. (To revive the dead, it is said that the sage is not really doing anything at all. Only the Creator can revive the dead. However, like with prayer, it is the sage who believes he has an unusual circumstance that warrants such a miracle and does the process to revive the dead, and relies on God’s intervention to actually do the miracle.)
Most American Jews are unfamiliar with these stories. We come from an attitude that shuns spirituality along with superstition. We reject and mistrust anything other worldly. But the Middle Eastern Jews and the Chassidic dynasties both are large branches of Judaism. They continue to look at life as one with the spiritual world. They will tell you many instances of their teachers, mentors, rebbes, and miracle workers doing acts that defy the laws of nature. The intention usually is to inspire or teach, never to show off or for personal gain.
My teachers didn’t do such things. But even though the sages we encounter may shy away from such things, – a friend of mine asked a special rabbi we know, “How come our sages can’t do miracles like that?” His answer was, “Who says we can’t?”
Everything in its time and place.