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Parshat Va’eira: Reflections on Miracles

By: Ophra Atar

In this weeks Parsha, we learn about the first 7 of the 10 plagues that resulted in the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. These plagues have long been discussed in terms of miracles, but in recent years, have been heavily contemplated in terms of natural causes. Natural explanations for almost all of the plagues have been found and are extremely convincing, however when contemplating our need for these explanations, I was met with a few questions.
Why should we try to explain miracles rationally? Is the search for an explanation a form of replacement of G-d? If we find rational explanations, are they miraculous at all? If miracles aren’t miraculous, what are their purpose?
To answer the first question briefly, faith is easily strengthened when we can understand G-d's workings right in front of us. Therefore, rationalising events that are seemingly removed from nature helps us to connect to those things further from our intellectual reach. This idea of finding explanation for miracles for the purpose of connection, answers the second question in the process, expressing that by ascribing everything we uncover to G-d, we are still acknowledging His ultimate power and presence in the world.
Discussing the next question of whether rationality strips miracles of their miraculous glory brings me to a few consecutive thoughts learnt by Rabbi Slifkin. The Ralbag first comments that a big problem arises when speaking of miracles as they indicate that G-d’s system of natural laws is not good enough for us. Due to this, the Rambam expands that one should try wherever possible to understand the events of the Torah in a non-miraculous manner, in order to show appreciation for G-d’s natural order. The Rambam continues to explain that this is because “at the beginning of creation, She created nature and the laws it would follow … Thus miracle was built into nature when it was created.” Rabbi Soloveitchick further interprets this argument by explaining that “the word miracle in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural ... it describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement.” By reframing the word “miracle” and confirming that nature is just as much, if not more, miraculous than miracles themselves, we can answer the third question by appreciating that all things we observe in this world hold the status of being miraculous, including the extraordinary events we specifically call miracles as well.
In this vein, we have established that miracles aren’t non-miraculous, they just aren’t more miraculous than the things we experience on a daily basis but that we have become desensitised to because of their regularities. So finally, what is the purpose of humanity experiencing what we call “miracles'' if they seemingly affect us the same way nature does? My answer is derived from Rabbi Soloveitchicks writings:
“In what, then, does the uniqueness of the miracle assert itself? In the correspondence of the natural and historical orders. The miracle does not destroy the objective scientific nexus in itself, it only combines natural dynamics and historical purposefulness. Had the plague of the firstborn, for instance, occurred a year before or after the exodus, it would not have been termed ‘with a strong hand’ (be-yad hazakah) … Whether G-d planned that history adjust itself to natural catastrophes or, vice versa, He commands nature to cooperate with the historical forces, is irrelevant. Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle.”