David Lapin
Rabbi, Consultant, Author

Science and miracle – a bipolar reality

From Sukot to Bereishit

Shabbat Bereishit[1] is a moving moment in the calendar. The story of the Creation arouses primal feelings and mystical thoughts. The story is about miracle, Garden of Eden, talking snakes and fiery angels. Yet it is also about the rational science, nature and psychology. Science and miracle; an oxymoron? No, I shall argue, a polarity that requires the embracing of both especially when striving to live a spiritual life in modern times..

This year Shabbat Bereishit is somewhat eclipsed by the long weekend of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the closing days of Sukot which fall on Thursday and Friday. There is meaning in this year’s seamless transition from Sukot to Shabbat Bereishit. Like Shabbat Bereishit, Sukot also embraces both nature and miracle in one mystical experience.

Sukot is unique not only in its symbolism but also in its laws. In no other area of Torah law are we so lenient about an individual who finds difficulty fulfilling a mitzvah (commandment in the Torah) as on Sukot. In all cases of religious observance, if one’s health is at risk and could be impaired by performing a mitzvah, the individual is released from the obligation. In the case of the mitzvah of Sukah however, even if there is no risk to health but one is merely mildly ill or feeling in any way discomforted by life in the outdoor booth he is released from any obligation to eat and sleep in the Sukah. Similarly, if the weather turns bad and rain penetrates the sechach (roof made from branches or reeds) in a way that could spoil the food, we go back indoors. We are not so wimpish about any other mitzvah. Excuses of mere discomfort or inclement whether do not relieve us from the obligations of Shabbat, shofar, kashrut and any other mitzvot of Torah consequence. Why do we take such a lenient approach to Sukot?

HaEzrach – One who is Vital

The reason to relieve an individual experiencing discomfort from the Sukah is because the Torah specifically states (Vayikra 23) that only an Ezrach must sit in a Sucah.  Onkelos (Aramaic translation) translates ezrach as a person who is vital and in full strength (“Yatziv” – see Ritva Sukah, 28b). Because one who is not in full strength will be unable to focus his attention fully on the complex intellectual demands of this mitzvah of sitting in the Sukah. (See Taz, OH”Ch 464:8.) The mitzvah of Sukah entails a rich intellectual dimension and requirement for mindfulness – more so than other mitzvot. This intellectual dimension of the mitzvah of Sukah is suggested in the verse “Lema’an yeid’u doroteichm…” – so that your future generations will be mindful…). One who distracted by his own discomfort, will be unable to fulfil the mitzvah and is therefore free from having to do so.

Miraculous Clouds vs. Engineered Booths

There is a different reason for why we do not use a Sukah through which rain has penetrated. Such a Sukah is not considered a halachically valid sukah at all. Paradoxically, the architecture of the sukkah requires that water and light can penetrate the roof, but if water actually does seep into the space, it renders the sukah unfit for use.

Paradox is key to this unusual mitzvah. Rabbis Eliezer and Akiva disagree (Sukah 11b) whether in the Sukah requires we are required to be mindful of the magical Clouds of Glory with which God enveloped His people in the desert, or, whether we need be mindful of the actual booths the Children of Israel physically built in the desert. In truth both of their views are true, and hence the paradox.

The Torah suggests that it is the Clouds of Glory that we are meant to reflect on in the Sukah.  (it uses the causative form, hoshavti…I enabled your dwelling in Sukot, implying the reference is to the miraculous clouds rather than to the naturally engineered booths  – see Rashi). On the other hand, the timing of Sukot suggests it commemorates the constructed booths rather than the miraculous clouds. The festival is celebrated in the month of Tishrei, at the start of winter, rather than the more obvious period of Nissan – the start of summer and the actual time the Children of Israel left Egypt. The reason for this timing is because in Tishrei that first year in the desert, the Children of Israel built real booths (Sukot) for the first time. They built them to protect themselves from the rain and cold of the desert winter. The clouds protected them from heat and sun but not from rain and cold. (See Ibn Ezra and Ramban.)

We express this double idea, Clouds of Glory and physical construction, in the paradoxical law that on the one hand, the Sukah should not be waterproof (so as to more represent the porous Clouds of Glory). On the other hand, if rain actually seeps into the Sukah it renders it passul (unusable for the mitzvah) because then the Sukah no longer resembles the physical Sukot constructions they built in the desert to protect themselves from rain and cold. A valid Sukah must be exposed to the elements but it must also be dry, protected and free from rain. The Sukah represents both natural engineering and supernatural miracle.  By living mindfully in the Sukah for seven days, we embrace both realities at once.

Embracing Science and Miracle

Adam and Eve are introduced to us in the miraculous world of the Garden of Eden. Soon they are expelled from that uni-polar state of being. Their new environment is not one that is free from Divine direction and miraculous events. The Torah is full of miracles long after Adam and Eve have left the Garden. As in the Sukah, humankind, post the Garden of Eden, must embrace both miracle and science at once. We use science to make sense of miracles, not to abolish them. The birth of a child is a miracle even though it can also be explainable by nature. Coincidence can be miraculous and yet there are always ways to explain them. Science and miracle are not an oxymoron.  Science and miracle are bipolar partners which we simultaneously embrace in our lives of hashgacha (Divine direction).

[1] The Shabbat we begin to read the Torah from the beginning of the book of Bereishit, Genesis.

About the Author
David Lapin, Rav of KBA, Raanana, author, speaker, and founder of Lapin International, a leadership and strategy consultancy, is dedicated to transforming leaders and restoring dignity and sanctity into the workplace. His life changing ideas and solutions to complex life issues move people into new paradigms of thought and action. He lives in Raanana, Israel, with his wife, has five children and fifteen grand-children. He is the author of Lead By Greatness, CEO of Lapin International, Inc. and teaches Torah on