D'var Thread on Beshalach - What is a miracle?
Jewish tradition takes a complex stance on the miraculous, and it might surprise you. We often think of miracles in a more Christian sense - the idea that prayer from a holy person causes God to intercede in nature. Not so.
This week we read about the parting of the Red Sea, as well as the celebration after the Israelites make it across. Miracles, and the parting of the Red Sea in particular, are a sticking point for a whole lot of people when it comes to traditional text. They just seem absurd.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Many folks assume that our pre-Modern ancestors lived in a fog of superstition and ignorance, willing to accept the miraculous as supernatural on its face. This is a basic tenet of the "God of the Gaps" critique, but it's ahistorical
Rabbeinu Bahya, a 13th/14th century Rabbi from Spain, had much to say on the meaning of miracles, influenced by his predecessors Maimonides and Saadia Gaon. He complicates and problematizes the categories of "natural" and "supernatural" in an almost postmodern way.
He sees the famous midrash below as having seeded this into Judaism. In it, he reads that the idea of a miraculously intercessory God is already undermined by the earliest rabbis; that things that SEEM intercessory or miraculous are a product of humanity's limited perspective
This idea is echoed by Spinoza a couple centuries later in his Ethics, which were seen as heretical at the time. In whole, this thread of Jewish thought is based in the acceptance that humanity's capacity for understanding is inherently limited.
Miracles, then, are simply surprises. They are things that happen in our lives that FEEL as if they happen on our behalf, or as intercessory acts of the Divine, but instead are pre-determined coincidences in a world that exists beyond our ability to fully conceptualize.
These "miracles" teach us the feeling we must use to guide our behavior in the world. These feelings of liberation, freedom, and justice are the lodestones of Jewish life and practice. Our misconstrual of "miracles" serves the purpose itself of highlighting these lodestones.
The parting of the Red Sea, as a "miraculous" incident in the Torah, teaches us that each moment we feel that freedom has been granted to us, that liberation is at hand, we are having a purely natural experience leading us towards the work we must do in the world - our Torah.
May each of us this Shabbat presence the feeling of the miraculous to use as a guide for our own work in the world, allowing us to use y'mei hol, the rest of the week, to spread this feeling of freedom and liberation to all those in need. Shabbat Shalom!