Nature Includes Miracles

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

R. Arama summarizes the fifteenth sha’ar with a proposition whose importance I have found increasingly clear in the past few years, Nature includes miracles [this is the reverse of the rationalist idea everything which looks miraculous to us is actually natural; it means Nature includes much more than the ordinary patterns we see, including things we would dismiss as miraculous or fantasy].

For me, the idea matters because it trains us to resist narrowing our perspective of the possible, teaches us to be ready for, even expect, what we think of as laws to be broken should occasion arise. Let’s see how R. Arama makes the point.

Humans Rule the Animals

He postulates whatever was created later is of a higher order than what came before, is the underlying form of all which preceded it, and therefore governs or guides what happens to all which came before (based on Bereshit Rabbah 19’s quote of R. Yehudah b. Simon). The idea explains why all creatures are subservient to humans (whose creation came last), R. Arama thinks so much so animals cannot harm people, as camels cannot fight against lions, tigers, or bears [he cannot mean any of this as absolutely as it sounds, given the Torah already knows of the possibility of an ox goring a human to death. He’s not done yet.] The phenomenon surprises ba’alei ha-chakirah, researchers (scientists, we would say today), who respond with wonder at Hashem’s creation.

Shabbat 151b has a baraita where R. Shim’on b. Elazar nontes the youngest baby does not need to be protected from rats [the rats will not attack a living human, regardless of how defenseless we know the human to be; again, this is not as absolutely true as R. Shim’on b. Elazar portrays it]. He related the idea to Bereshit 9;2, where Hashem tells Noach and his sons all the animals and birds will fear and dread humans. The instant a human passes away, no matter how large, we have to worry about those very rats.

The element of life on which R. Shim’on focuses tells R. Arama the life force of humanity differentiates people from animals.

The Miraculous Is Part of Nature

R. Arama thinks this power of human beings extends logically from the Divine Providence he’s referred to in previous sections, including especially the element of Providence articulated by Bereshit Rabbah 12, Hashem saw the world could not survive with pure justice and wove in the attribute of mercy.

He thinks the Midrash means Nature, as created by Hashem, responds to righteousness and evil [with a mix of justice and mercy, as he’s just noted; the surprise is his claim it’s Nature doing it, rather than Hashem occasionally intervening to mete out justice in some way.] There are two tracks to Nature, he says: the ordinary one, where events follow their expected path without regard to who or what is affected.

For example, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 21 picks up on the word Shemot 14;27 uses to say the sea returned to its strength, le-eitano; mangling it a little, the Midrash says li-tenao ha-rishon, its original condition. [Ordinarily, in other words, the Sea rages and subsides, ebbs and flows, with no discernible connection to who happens to be travelling it at the time.]

Nature was also embedded, at Creation, with another way of operating, where it fulfills the Divine Will and the fullest perspective of the world [without a specific intervention by Hashem, I think he means]. Bereshit Rabbah 5 tells us Hashem made a condition with the Sea to split, with the fire to refrain from burning (Avraham at the hands of Nimrod and Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah with Nevuchadnezzar—he adds the lions not eating Daniel, heavens and earth quieting so Moshe could declare the Song of Ha’azinu).

We see miracles because we assume Nature always follows the first track, when the second track is no less natural, only less common. Those with the insight to understand how Hashem operates are clear these, too, belong to the Nature Hashem created.

As an aside, he makes a point too few people today realize: the classical rationalism he is espousing comes to avoid a philosophical problem which does not bother most people today, ascribing change or difference to Hashem. Rambam in the Guide II;29, and those who accepted his views, thought it almost blasphemous to see Hashem as changing (it implied imperfection). By envisioning the miracles as already in Nature, they can insist no change occurs in Hashem. [I stress the point because many today think these ideas help avoid admitting to miracles—they think we know the laws of Nature and nothing can breach them; they celebrate when scientists discover a natural way to explain miracles of our tradition. R. Arama is not buying into any of that. Nature contains within it wonders we cannot imagine, including the possibility of responding to a person’s righteousness or lack of it.]

The Role of Prophets and Insightful Righteous People

An earlier commentator on Rambam’s Guide, Moses of Narbonne, had claimed Rambam held all such miracles had to be announced ahead of time by a prophet. R. Arama proves it’s not true [I am skipping his proofs because I think his point is largely obvious; for one example, he notes how Rambam thought the ten items Avot 5;6 says were created at twilight on the sixth day of Creation were when Hashem put these possibilities into Nature.]

I would have skipped it completely, except R. Arama does envision a role for the prophet. When s/he announces a miracle, the prophet informs us who is worthy of Nature taking this secondary track and sometimes him/herself pushes Nature to that secondary track.

Important people such as the Avot or prophets and righteous people seem in his view to have power to summon such “miraculous” events, which is why tradition refers to them also as a Merkavah, a chariot for Hashem. The image is taken from the first chapter of Yechezkel, who sees Hashem as riding a chariot, which R. Arama thinks means the heavens which control the ordinary track of Nature. The people who can shift Nature to track two are a mirkevet ha-mishneh, a secondary Chariot, who also partake of the running of the world.

Their role in identifying where a “miracle” is appropriate means generations bereft of such people have less of the Track Two experience, fewer such miracles, as in his time [such people might then make the mistake of denying they can occur.] In the spiritually insensitive version of Nature, fire burns whatever it can, animals maul humans. Not how it was supposed to work.

Self-Control as the Path to World Control

It’s a punishment for human failings, says R. Arama, our failure to uphold Hashem’s wish for us that we express our tzelem Elokim, our intellectual grasp of the world as Hashem has told us it works. Much like a king cannot control his kingdom when his officers and ministers refuse to obey, the human intellect only controls the world when it is in control of all of its own body parts, has them act only as the Divine Will would wish.

When the person does, all the rest of Nature bows to him/her; but to the extent a person lets the body act “naturally,” the rest of Nature will as well. In Shabbat 151b, Rami b. Abba makes the point by saying an animal has no power over a person until the person is like an animal. The tribes of Reuven and Gad made the same point when they told Yehoshu’a no one would rebel against him, as long as he was strong and of good courage; to R. Arama, they mean the strength and courage to empower the soul in control of the body.

About Gidon Rothstein

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