The nature of miracles-Thoughts on Parshat Tzav and Purim 5774

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion begins by describing the command to bring the daily Korban Olah (burnt offering) and the kindling of the flame on top of the Alter. The verses write, “And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning, and upon it…. A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” (Vayikra 6:5-6) As was mentioned previously, while we no longer bring Korbanot today, there is still an important message that we can glean from studying the rituals related to the korbanot which will enhance our modern day spiritual lives.

It is in the details that we can uncover the deeper message. Take a closer look at the act of kindling the fire on the Alter, and you will learn that there is more to it than meets the eye. While discussing the command to kindle the flames, the Talmud in Tractate Yoma writes, “Although the fire descended from heaven, it is a mitzvah to add a humanly produced fire to it as well.” (Yoma 21 B) From this passage, it seems clear that the fire on the Alter was of a miraculous and divine nature — yet there was still a commandment for the kohen to kindle the fire each morning through natural means. If in any event God would perform a miracle and have fire descend from heaven in order to ignite the flame of the Alter, why then was it necessary for the kohanim to go through the unnecessary motions of kindling the fire?

In answer to this question, the Sefer Hachinuch offers a unique explanation. It not only addresses the above issue, but it also presents a novel and somewhat radical approach to the concept of miracles. He writes: “When God decides to perform a tremendous miracle, He does His best to disguise it and make it appear as if it is a regular occurrence…We find that at the splitting of the Red Sea, the verse wrote that a strong wind blew, in order to give in the appearance of a natural phenomenon. This is also the reason why God commanded the Kohanim to light the fire on the Alter even though it descended from heaven, in order to disguise the miracle in the cloak of the mundane.” (Mitzvah 122) Though the Sefer Hachinuch addresses the reason why the Kohen is required to bring his own fire, it also raises another and seemingly more important question: Why does God desire to have his miracles cloaked in nature’s disguise? Wouldn’t it be more impactful if miracles were obviously Divine, and that all could recognize and clearly see the hand of God at work?

I believe that there are two important messages to be learned from the fact that God desires miracles to be shrouded in natural processes, rather than obviously miraculous. The first explanation can be found in an insightful explanation by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as cited in the work “Gold from the Land of Israel” by Rabbi Chanan Morrison. He writes, “…this intervention in nature (miracles) was always limited as much as possible, in order that we should not belittle the importance of personal effort and initiative…It is preferable that we do not rely on divine intervention, but rather say, ‘Perhaps a miracle will not occur.’ Ultimately, both miracles and natural events are the work of God…Natural events the work of God, but they are achieved through our skill, initiative, and effort. When we are active, we spiritually advance ourselves by virtue of our actions. Our zechuyot (merits) are the result of the positive, ethical deeds that we have performed. We should strive for an active life of giving, not a passive one of receiving. Such an engaged, enterprising life better fulfils God’s will — the attainment of the highest level of perfection for His creations.”(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 70-72.) Rather the sitting back and being passive ‘’receivers,” it is up to us to actively take part in the world around us and through our own effort work to achieve our goals. This is why the kohen was still commanded to kindle the flame on the Alter, so that we should never forget the importance of our own actions.

The second message is that a miracle is truly miraculous in that it can transcend the time and space from which it occurred, it can serve as a source of inspiration for generations to come. It is this power that makes a miraculous event so significant. Rabbi Dr. Nathan Cardozo eloquently explains this idea, and so beautifully connects it to our modern day State of Israel, when he writes, “The most important quality of a miracle is not that it is supernatural…but that it is a moment which remains miraculous in the eyes of the person to whom it occurred, even when it can be argued away in terms of science and brought into the nexus of nature and normal history. The real power of a miracle is that it is an astonishing experience of an event in which the current system of cause and effect becomes, as it were, transparent, permitting a glimpse of the sphere in which another unrestricted Power is at work…It is in this sense that a historical miracle becomes a root experience. If it is possible for later generations to relive the experience not because of what happened, but through the way it was perceived only then can we speak of a miracle.
The establishment of the State of Israel was no doubt an epoch making event. It is again the completely astonishing nature of this event which stands out– the transformation of the earthliness of the Jewish people into a radically different situation. While miracles no doubt took place to enable it to happen, the most important religious dimension is again the abiding astonishment with this event…”
(For the Love of Israel and the Jewish People pg 215-216) The significance of a miracle is not just that a significant event occurred long ago, but that through the power of our collective memory and dedication to its ideals, it is reborn anew again.

Just like the kohen kindling the fire, may we as a nation recognize that though God provides daily miracles, it is still up to us to take an active role in order to bring it to its true and complete fruition. And may those miracles always remain as a source of wonder and inspiration for the entire people of Israel. Wishing a joyous and festive Purim to all.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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