Dear Jew in the City-
I’ve been thinking about the Ten Plagues and how these awesome miracles happened for the Jewish people in the Passover story, as well as throughout the Torah. How come we don’t have miracles anymore?
I’m a Believer
That’s a great question. To answer that, we have to go back to idolatry. And before idolatry, we have to talk about sex.
Look at our society and see how preoccupied it is with sex. Look at TV, magazines, the Internet, fashion, etc., etc., etc. and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Even if you, personally, are not preoccupied with sex, you are no doubt aware that such a preoccupation is common, even prevalent.
Well, believe it or not, people used to have an equally strong desire for idolatry. If you read your way through the Books of the Prophets (either in the original or with the help of The Nach Yomi Companion volume 1), you’ll see that this is the case. For some reason, people were just crazy about idols – they couldn’t control their urges!
This was already history by the time of the Talmud. In one famous incident, the Talmudic sage Rav Ashi made a disparaging remark about the Biblical King Menashe. That night, Menashe appeared to Rav Ashi in a dream and demonstrated his Torah knowledge. Surprised, Rav Ashi asked the king, “If you’re such a Torah scholar, how could you worship idols?” “You don’t know the temptation we had for idolatry,” Menashe replied. “If you had lived in my day, you’d have picked up the hems of your garment to run after idols!” (Sanhedrin 102b)
So what happened to reduce this desire to serve idols? Early in the second Temple period, the Men of the Great Assembly (whose ranks included the final prophets) prayed that the desire for idolatry be given over to them. This request was granted and the idolatrous impulse appeared to them like a fiery lion. They were able to destroy it except for a “lock of its hair” that fell out. These descriptions, of course, are symbolic images intended to illustrate how they disabled the overwhelming majority of idolatry’s power – something like 99.99999999999999% of its previous lure. If what we have worldwide today represents a “lock of idolatry’s hair,” you can imagine how strong the “fiery lion” must have been! (This story is recounted in Talmud Yoma 69b).
Okay, so what does all this idolatry stuff have to do with miracles? I’ll explain.
Human beings are placed in this world with a mission: we are meant to perfect ourselves by choosing between good and evil. In order for us to go through life, good and evil have to have a fairly level playing field. There used to be two very strong but opposite attractions. One of these was the lure of idolatry, as we have discussed. The other was prophecy. The prophets spent most of their time railing against idol-worship to varying degrees of success. However, once the urge to serve idols was all but eradicated, that gave the positive pull of prophecy too strong an edge. Accordingly, prophecy ceased shortly after the urge for idolatry was conquered. (The prophets actually predicted the end of prophecy. One famous verse on this subject is Amos 8:11, “Behold, days are coming, says God Hashem, that I will send a famine in the land – not a famine for bread or a thirst for water but rather to hear to the words of Hashem.”)
Now, prophecy and miracles typically go hand in hand. God split the sea – but He did so through Moses. God made the sun stand still – but He did so through Joshua. God revived the dead – but He did so through Elijah, etc. Even without using a prophet as His agent, the principle would be the same: the forces that pull us towards good and towards evil have to be commensurate.
The ironic thing is that we do have miracles today, they’re just of a different kind than the ones you’re thinking about. If you went back 3,500 ago to the time of the Exodus and you saw the clouds of glory and the manna, you would no doubt be duly impressed. But bring someone from that era back with you. Show them your smart phone. Take their picture with it. Play them a few songs, record a video, show them Google – how many miracles is that? Now show them a video of the moon landing – wasn’t that a miracle? You can hop on a plane and be on the other side of the globe in 12 hours – is that not a miracle?
Before you dismiss our miracles as the simple application of naturally-occurring scientific principles, remember that mankind has always excelled at dismissing miracles.
“Remember that flood that wiped the world out a few generations ago? That was some freaky storm, huh?”
“You see the Red Sea split? Yeah, that happens sometimes.”
“That sure was some palpable darkness we had last week – almost as bad as the flaming hail!”
“Manna? Sure, that’s a natural phenomenon!”
We’re surrounded by miracles. We’re just as able to justify miracles like the ten plagues and the revelation at Sinai as we are to dismiss miracles like strawberries and your endocrine system.
God still works miracles. They’re all around us. They just have to be appropriate for the times in which we live. Our miracles may be less overt in some ways than those of our ancestors but in both cases people have the ability to embrace them or dismiss them and to live their lives based on the implications of those decisions.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent