by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
and Rabbi Aryeh Carmell
What is the difference between the natural and the miraculous? Are they not both from God?!
Many who believe in God may find this question naive. Of course everything is from God, they will reply. Nature is simply the law God established at the time of creation, which regulates the processes of this world in accordance with the principle of cause and effect. This is how this world operates, they will tell us. On rare occasions, because of some special need, and for someone who has extraordinary merits, God will override the laws He has written into the cosmos and will perform open miracles which have no physical cause. This is the case with all the miracles mentioned in the Bible and in the words of our Sages.
We may ask them: What precisely is "cause and effect?" Why does the effect proceed from the cause? For example, what causes grain to grow? The reply will be: Surely it's obvious! Once the soil is prepared by plowing, and the seed has been sown and the ground properly watered, all the natural causes are present which bring about the growth of the grain.
If we venture to ask: But WHY do these factors cause the growth of the grain. They are likely to laugh at us and reply: But you can see it always happens like that; it is perfectly obvious that these are the causes that God has implanted in creation to bring about the growth of grain; this is what we mean by nature.
MIRACLE OF RESURRECTION
But when we go into this more deeply we realize that we have no answer to the question of why the effect follows the cause. All we know is that this is what invariably happens. Would it not be valid to say that this is a constant miracle - which we happen to have gotten used to!?
Let us imagine that we saw a dead person laid to rest in his grave. The body decomposes and turns to dust. Then slowly, from the depths of the grave, something begins to grow. We see something like a human body forming and protruding above the ground. Eventually the earth is thrust aside and a complete, living human being shakes himself free of the earth and emerges from the grave. What would we say?! We would be absolutely sure that we had witnessed the great miracle of the resurrection of a dead person.
But then why do we not see the same miracle in the growth of a seed, which likewise is sown in the earth and rots away, until a new shoot comes forth out of the rotting material. Why should not this event, too, be considered a resurrection of the dead? In fact it is. The only difference is that we are used to the resurrection of seeds but we are not used to the resurrection of people. If the situation were reversed, we would call the resurrection of bodies "nature" and the resurrection of seeds "miracle."
EVERYTHING IS A MIRACLE
The truth is that there is no essential difference between the natural and the miraculous. Everything that occurs is a miracle. The world has no other cause but the will of God. His deeds and His conduct of the world are the immediate consequence of His will. What He wills comes into being without need of any intermediary. We call God's act a "miracle" when He wills an occurrence which is novel and unfamiliar to us and which consequently makes us aware of the hand of God. We call God's acts "nature" when He wills that certain events should occur in a recognizable pattern with which we become familiar.
This familiarity presents us with a challenge. We can choose to recognize that these events, too, have as their sole and immediate cause the unfettered will of God. Or we can imagine that God has delegated certain powers to "Nature," and that within the realm of nature man too has the ability to influence events by the process of cause and effect.
The whole concept of "nature" is thus nothing but a test for the human being. Nature has no objective existence; it is merely an illusion which gives man a choice to exercise his free will: to err, or to choose the truth.
VINEGAR CAN BURN
Let us imagine an individual who by dint of enormous spiritual effort has successfully overcome the challenge of "nature," so that the natural no longer presents any problems to him. There would no longer be any need for Heaven to deal with him through the obscuring veil of nature. Miracles would become commonplace for him.
There have been rare individuals of this sort in our history. One of them was Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, whose daughter once by mistake put vinegar instead of oil in the Shabbat lamp. He said to her: "Why are you sad? What difference does it make? He Who told oil to burn can tell vinegar to burn," and the vinegar burned all Shabbat until they lit the (post-Shabbat) Havdalah light from it. (see Talmud - Taanit 25a)
The meaning is that Rabbi Chanina had reached the level where he recognized, not only intellectually but deep in his being, that there was indeed no difference between nature and miracle. Consequently, so far as he was concerned there was no need to keep up the pretense of "nature." And for him oil and vinegar were indeed equally flammable.
There are people who devote excessive time and thought to pondering the natural factors which affect their affairs. They are given to making long-term calculations to decide which of a number of factors they should promote to attain a desired goal. Even if their efforts are eventually blessed with success, they usually find that the matter did not take the course that they originally envisaged. The development was materially affected by factors which were completely unknown to them at the time. This is to teach us that there is no point in over-zealous manipulation of what we think are the physical causes of events. We manipulate on one side and God gives from another.
It is a great mistake to think that one can achieve one's goals by going into the fine details of factors and causes whose effect we imagine we can forecast. Every factor comprises many details, each of which again depends on other factors which are largely unknown to us. It is practically a foregone conclusion that the ultimate outcome cannot be foreseen.
For example, in our friend's calculations one of the factors may be to go to So-and-so's house and have a talk with him. But there are literally hundreds of small factors, produced by causes beyond his control, which may prevent him from going. There are hundreds of other causes which may interfere with the part of the plan referred to as "So-and-so's house," and similarly with "So-and-so" himself, and many more with the part referred to as "having a talk with him." Then there are many thousands of possible factors which may affect the course of the talk and its outcome.
All of the above possibilities and their various possible outcomes are concealed from him. This shows how ridiculous it is to think that one has the ability to ponder all the factors, weigh them up accurately, and plan one's actions accordingly. For each factor which he thinks he knows, there are ten thousand which he doesn't know. There is no greater foolishness than to base one's life on such imaginary calculations.
Let's say, after all that, that God eventually brings his efforts to a successful conclusion, even though by a completely different route from the one he first envisaged. If it should turn out that in all the various developments there are a few small points which partially resemble his first ideas, he will pride himself on his remarkable acumen and attribute the success entirely to his own efforts!
OPPORTUNTITIES IN ABUNDANCE
People tend to make another great mistake. They often find that they manage to gain a livelihood only with the utmost difficulty; it seems to them indeed "as difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea." (see Talmud - Pesachim 118a) They assume that this is because there are relatively few opportunities compared with the number of people competing for them, so that only a few can be successful. Consequently they are always striving to manipulate the situation to attract to themselves as many opportunities as possible, not failing to step on other people in the process. All this is useless and destructive in the extreme.
The truth is that God has provided opportunities in abundance - thousands, even millions of times more than we can possibly make use of. Look at the world around us. The earth and all the planets together utilize only an infinitesimal fraction of the light, heat and energy given off by the sun. Man, animals and the whole biosystem of the earth use only a tiny fraction of the available air. For every seed that develops into a plant there are countless millions whose potential is never fulfilled. In animals and man only one out of millions of sperms is needed to fertilize the egg.
What can one do to avoid these pitfalls? What can help us realize that everything comes to us directly from God and that physical causes have no power and no reality?
THE POTENCY OF PRAYER
The most obvious means to this end is prayer. Prayer fixes in our heart the realization that we can obtain our desires only by turning to God, from whom all things come.
Our Rabbis say: "Man's livelihood is as difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea." Rashbam explains: "That is to say, a great miracle." Needless to say, this does not mean that the miracle is difficult for God; all is equal before Him. The meaning is that we, from our point of view, have to reflect on and realize the wonder of the miracle involved in earning one's living.
And the purpose of this, says Rashbam, is "to know how to pray." By prayer we come to recognize the miraculous nature of human sustenance, which most people think of as the result of mere natural causes. Through prayer we impress on ourselves the truth that nature is nothing and that all comes to us from God alone; that there is no other cause but He, and from Him alone we seek and receive all our needs.
Excerpted from the book, "STRIVE FOR TRUTH!"
Published by Feldheim Publishers,
Presented in cooperation with Heritage House, Jerusalem. Visit www.innernet.org.il.