Miracles and Self Reliance

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Vayera, contains the story of the miraculous birth of our second Patriarch, Yitzchak. Sarah was well past the age where she could have children. According to the laws of nature such a happening had to be ruled out. But that was not the whole story.

Judaism affirms the reality of miracles. But unlike most religions it takes the laws of nature very seriously. We are commanded to obey them and live within their framework. Indeed, the mitzvah of Maakeh incorporates this principle. It stipulates that one is obligated to build a rail around the roof of his abode if it is flat and people have access to it. The reason is to prevent someone from falling off of it.

By extension this commandment further stipulates that one must remove any dangerous object from his premises. He may not allow harmful substances or paraphernalia, unattended, in a place where they can do harm.

We see from this that one cannot be complacent or reliant on the protective embrace of Divine Providence. He must be proactive in confronting the challenges that nature places before us. This has nothing to do with our level of religiosity. Even the greatest Tzadikim among us may not ignore reality and rely on miracles.

This issue is a matter of great concern in the contemporary era of coronavirus. Unfortunately rates of infection have been the highest in very religious neighborhoods.  These communities tended to be very reluctant to scrupulously adhere to the necessary guidelines  especially when they openly conflicted with their religious responsibilities.

Thus they did not close down shuls  or prevent attendance at weddings, funerals or chasidic gatherings such as “tisches” and the like. This in spite of the warnings about the serious harm that could emerge from this. Tragically the evidence seems clear that many people got sick  and died due to this abandonment of reason.

It is necessary to reiterate the teaching of Judaism that all commandments are cancelled  (except idolatry, murder and forbidden sex) in the face of Pikuach Nefesh (danger of death). One may not engage in any behaviors proscribed by the medical experts even if this means praying at home or not attending significant religious and social events. It is sinful to act on the premise that since I am engaged in holy activities I need fear no harm.

This is not to deny the prominent place that miracle play in the outlook of Judaism. Our view is based on the doctrine of Yesh Ma’ayin  which asserts that the world exists  because Hashem created it from nothing. The Creator designed and established the laws of nature according to His  Will and he may alter them whenever that suits His purposes.

It must be remembered that the power to produce miracles is exclusively that of Hashem. Man can only make progress by studying nature and thereby learning how he can work within that system to achieve his goals. However he cannot operate outside of the natural order established by G-d. He can’t effectuate any changes in the  world  of actuality.

Hashem intervenes in the world to bring about results that would be impossible from the standpoint of nature. Such a case is Sarah’s birth of Yitzchak recorded in our Parsha. Why did Hashem decide to act in this manner? He could have responded to Avraham and Sarah’s prayers and allow her to become pregnant at a much younger age. Instead Hashem “waited” until they were very old and and required a great miracle in order to reproduce. How are we to understand this?

We lack solid information on this matter but  I would  like to engage in some speculation. Yitzchak, the heir of Avraham, had a singular mission. It was to continue the religious movement based on renunciation of idol worship and emulation of the “ways of Hashem” which had been established by Avraham. Avraham was extremely successful in terms of spreading the message and gaining adherents. 

However in order for the Abrahamic religion to succeed it needed to be demonstrated that it was not dependent on a single  great personality  such as Avraham. Rather it was a system of philosophical and theological concepts which could be rationally demonstrated and adhered to by all thinking people.

The birth of Yitzchak was a momentous event. He was the divinely ordained successor to his great father. By his miraculous birth Hashem demonstrated that the religious approach of Avraham was the one which found favor in His eyes and that  He would see to the ultimate success of of this  movement whereupon  all the  world will ”become a united society to do Your Will wholeheartedly.” May this moment come “speedily and in our time.” 

Shabbat Shalom