Changing the World with Evocative Acts

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Praying Opposite His Wife

Biblical stories of miracles teach us not only how Hashem changes nature but also how people do it. Last time, we saw that Ran thought that Ya’akov and Esav’s differences showed that Rivkah’s pregnancy wasn’t itself fully natural. As the derasha continues, he raises another unnatural aspect of the pregnancy. Rivkah, in his view, was completely infertile, by which I mean that she physically could not have children, not that she had a problem with ovulation or some other particular part of the pregnancy process. By her natural makeup, she simply could not conceive.

In this series
* 1: Communities, Combination and Creation
* 2: What Science Doesn’t Know
* 3: What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?
* 4: The Permanent Friction Between Esav and Yaakov
* 5: Changing the World with Evocative Acts
* 6: Predicting and Locking In the Future
* 7: Moshe’s Speech Defect and the Dangers of Demagoguery
* 8: Drasha 3: Aharon and the Rewards of Sincere Humility
* 9: Drasha 3: Embracing the Metaphysics in the First Mitzvot of the Torah

This is odd, since she was the predestined wife for Yitzchak, the predestined Patriarch of an entire people. Ran says the only explanation is what Yevamot 64a says, that Hashem in some way “desires” the prayers of the righteous, which he understands to be because of the greater closeness to Hashem the Patriarchs achieved through their prayers. That’s a fascinating idea, and I didn’t want to skip it, but I don’t have space here to think about it fully.

When a supplicant wants Hashem to change nature that supplicant can become the vehicle of the change

Our topic today, though, is more the next part of what Ran says, his view of why Yitzchak made sure to pray “לנוכח אשתו, opposite his wife.” Ran suggests that the simplest reading of that phrase means that he was praying for Hashem to change his wife’s physical makeup, not by somehow making her miraculously conceive without changing the underlying problem. That is another idea that deserves follow-up another time, that some miracles don’t suspend a nature that will return once the miracle is over, but completely abrogate that nature. Ran doesn’t spend a lot of time on this, either, so neither will I, but it bears consideration: when does a miracle temporarily suspend nature and when does it change it forever?

Changing Nature

Ran is more interested in how that process works. The simplest way, in his view, is for Hashem to change the heavenly forces that control what happens on earth (remember that in his view, there are angels in Heaven who are in charge of everything that occurs down here—a prime way that Hashem changes what’s going on down here is by changing what happens up there). One of the examples Ran offers makes that sound a bit less strange. Let’s suppose, he says, that clouds have gathered in a way that makes a rainstorm or a tornado highly likely. To avoid that outcome, something would have to happen to those clouds or other atmospheric conditions.

That’s no problem for Hashem, but when a supplicant wants Hashem to change nature, Ran suggests, that supplicant can become the vehicle of the change. Instead of going through heavenly forces, Hashem can use the prophet or other person praying. To do so, the person has to perform some act that allows for the change. Eliyahu and Elisha resurrected boys who had died, for example, by lying on them; that was an important part of channeling Hashem’s influence to return them to life. So, too, Ya’akov’s taking Yosef’s sons into his arms was crucial to blessing them.

We human beings have the power to convince Hashem to redo nature

And that’s what happened with Yitzchak: wanting to change Rivkah to help her be able to conceive and bear children, he prayed facing her, with her fully in mind.

The Role of Humans in Shaping the World

There are two stimulating claims here. First, Hashem generally runs the world through heavenly forces, manipulating change in nature by changing those forces. Sometimes, though, humans “convince” Hashem to change nature, and in those cases, Hashem does it through the humans in question. Theoretically, once people like Elisha secure a miracle such as a boy being resurrected, Hashem could have done it through the ordinary heavenly forces He would have used if He had decided to change nature on His own.

Why should that be? Ran doesn’t say, but let me offer a suggestion: Ran’s view of the line between the physical and metaphysical as porous, with humans managing to pierce it with their prayers, might indicate that Hashem not only allows for this, but “wants” it (as we saw last time, with Hashem’s interest in the prayers of the righteous). That could be for a few reasons, but one is that it shows humans partnering with Hashem in fostering the felicitous functioning of the world. If so, it would make sense that Hashem would then have those same humans be the vehicle of the change they brought about.

The second piece of it is what’s required for that to happen. Eliyahu and Elisha had to lie on the targets of change; Ya’akov had to hold on to his grandsons; but Yitzchak simply looks at Rivkah as he prays. That might be because of the level of change being sought—bringing people back to life and/or setting up their future with Ya’akov’s beracha might be more “difficult,” as it were, than altering Rivkah’s biology to be able to have children. I don’t know if Ran thought that way, he doesn’t say, but it seems a reasonable extrapolation from what he does say.

The Takeaway

The piece we’ll see next time speaks about how and when predictions, by God and/or through prophets, are ironclad and when they’re open to change. What we’ve seen here, though, is Ran’s first suggestion that we human beings have the power to convince Hashem to redo nature (remember: not to temporarily suspend it, because Rivkah was physically changed so that she could conceive), and then to become the mechanism through which Hashem brings about that new world.

Any scientist would reject this idea as impossible, but that itself, we should remember, isn’t a scientific approach—true science might say that such a human ability has never been seen in a lab, that it’s mechanism has never been explained, and that we have no reason to think it’s true.

That doesn’t mean it’s not true, only that it’s not common and not easily isolated. It leaves us to wonder about the issue on two levels. Do we accept the possibility that there could be workings of the world, with a mix of the natural and supernatural, that we don’t see in our regular lives but are nonetheless true? And, if we do, do we accept that at least some special human beings have the power to impact those workings, through their prayers and their evocative actions?

About Gidon Rothstein

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