Miracles that aren't miracles
One can certainly ask whether upper, open miracles are effective in deepening a person’s faith. The Kotzker Rebbe, for example, notices Rashi’s comment that Yitro was motivated to join the Jewish people when he heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the battle with Amalek. The Kotzker wonders at the combination of these two events. He writes.
The sages said, and Rashi brought on the verse ‘and the waters split,’ that all the waters in the world split at that time. The nations heard and trembled because they saw with their own eyes, and, despite this, Amalek came and fought with Israel. Therefore Yitro stood astounded upon seeing this, and began to investigate the matter with his intelligence, and understood from this that even though it is true true that overt miracles give root to faith, because, through overriding the system of nature, the nations of the world trembled, but despite this, one’s inspiration from miracles only lasts for a moment…”
Sefer Likutei Megadim 40a, my translation
But this is not a question we really have the luxury of asking anymore. We are just not expecting open miracles that defy nature. I believe I speak for many of us when I say that it’s not that I think Hashem can’t make open miracles happen. It’s more that Hashem just doesn’t seem interested in making open miracles happen. If he did, the Holocaust would have been a good time to flex that muscle, no?
But it’s not like overt miracles stopped just before the mid-20th century.
אמר רב אסי למה נמשלה אסתר לשחר לומר לך מה שחר סוף כל הלילה אף אסתר סוף כל הנסים
Rabbi Asi said, “Why is Esther compared to the dawn? To tell you that, just as the dawn is the end of the night, so, too, Esther is the end of all miracles.”
What’s left is the realm of hidden miracles - that is, miracles that could be attributed to nature. The question is: to what extent are we supposed to see, or should we try to see, or be open to seeing, the hidden Hand of Hashem through the natural order? Or, in the words of the Jewish people after the Splitting of the Sea, “Is Hashem with us, or not?”
That was a moment when the Jews had seen open miracles in recent memory - like, a week ago. How, then, could they wonder whether Hashem was with them or not? The answer is that they didn’t not remember. They knew full well that Hashem had done the plagues and split the sea. Rather, the question they were really asking was whether Hashem was still with them when, for whatever reason, Hashem was not relating to them through open miracles. The Ha’amek Davar explains:
“…they reasoned that someone who is not worthy to governance-by-miracles (הנהגה נסית) is like all the other nations. And Moshe sought to show the Jewish people the power of Hashem’s providence even without revealed miracles.”
Clearly this is something that requires demonstration, or at least explanation. Is it still true now, with us being in exile? Do we have to deserve it? Can we lose it? What does it mean that Hashem is guiding (מנהיג), or that we continue to be under Hashem’s providence (השגחה)? What can we expect? What do we have to do in order to deserve it? Is that even the right language? How do we see it? What does it look like? Is it based upon our interpretation? Is it happening whether we see it or not? Whether we believe it or not? Are we required to see it? Is it OK to ask these questions? What does prayer have to do with it?
I think these are fertile questions. I’d like to offer some pieces (all translations mine) that offer me and inspiration in relating to them.
From a Breslov periodical called Mebuei Hanachal, Tamuz 1979 (as brought on Pe’er Halikutim on Torah 7, in the section called Yalkut Hanachal, D.H. V’zeh tehom el tehom:
It seems to me to understand from this that the essential purpose of miracles is to remove a person form a situation of coldness and apathy, which comes from the klippah of Amalek, ‘who cooled you down.’ His entire concern is to weaken and cool down one’s faith. Therefore, it is written concerning the war with Amalek “And [Moshe’s] hands were faith.” The concept of nature is perpetual behavior without changes, and this itself is the reason for forgetting and becoming cool, as if God forbid the world is only going according to its pattern. But the concept of faith is to believe that the entire creation is renewed in every moment, as is mentioned in this lesson, “that he would believe that there is a Renewer.” And there no moment that is like any other moment. And the whole matter of renewal of creation at all times is in order to reveal His Godliness to every person, in a different way at each moment, like the words of the Zohar: “The garments that He wears in the morning He does not wear in the evening; and the garments He wears on this day, etc.” That at each moment, His Divinity wears, as it were, different garments, which are all of the happenings that happen in the world, in general, and within the details, and the details of the details. And this the ultimate goal - that a person will be astounded and excited by every matter and happening, and that person will recognize the Creator, may He be blessed, each time in a new way… like the concept that is expounded in lesson 54, that in every thought, word and action of very person, there is a revelation of Hashem’s Godliness, according to the person and the place and the time. It turns out that, when a person merits to complete faith, then he is always in a situation of wonder and excitement form the greatness fo Hahem and His governance over every detail, and this is the main thing, and this is why miracles are referred to as tehom (depths), which also means wonder and surprise
What I like about this piece is that it requires us to be alert to the constant changes that are happening around us. To perceive God’s providence requires work, attention, and a willingness to be surprised, to be in a state of wonder. It is not going to hit us over the head - it is there, but we have to do the work to perceive it.
From the Breslov book Darchei Noam (Shiurim, 7):
And prayer is dependent upon full faith, that a person constantly places in his heart that Hashem is listening and hearing every word, and the entire world is renewed at every moment, and He will hear me and help me….
Rebbe Nachman says in several places how important it is to believe that Hashem is literally listening to every word of our prayers. In this sense, the cycle can be started by us: by believing that Hashem is listening to our prayers, we are more likely and willing to put more of ourselves into our prayers. But the “answer”, again, will not hit us over the head. The sea will not split. Rather, any “response” from Hashem will come through subtle shifts though the order of nature that we only see if we are open to seeing it as such.
From Rav Shagar on Torah 7 in Likutei Moharan (scattered quotes from throughout):
[When we are in exile,] one is unable to live his life in a full and complete way. We are likely to experience, in this situation, within our everyday lives, despite the fact that we rarely pay attention to this; we live an existence within which we are not able to act with our full power. According to Rebbe Nachman’s conception, faith removes a person from exile in that it gives substance to life as it is. The thought that there is an infinite, Divine dimension in life itself affects the consciousness of a person and changes his life. he can feel at home, and is therefore able to live fully. He is conscious of the fact that, the truth of the matter is, he is not missing or lacking anything. The place where he is is his true place, and the things that are happening to him are his destiny.
As mentioned in my previous piece on Purim, this is what I am looking for on that choicest of holidays: I want to be with what is, and know that that is exactly the place to be, and Hashem is there, and I can be happy. Rav Shagar continues:
Prayer is the opportunity to restore the world of faith to a person. Even if his day-to-day life is not lived on the level of faith, prayer allows him to be found on a higher plane, and to experience, through the words of prayer, an experience of faith.
I have some reservations about the ‘move’ Rav Shagar makes here, but I deeply respect the idea that we don’t ‘pray because we believe’, but rather we ‘believe because we pray.” Not that we pray for belief, but rather, the act of prayer is an act of belief, and so, by praying, we are, at least momentarily, immersing ourselves in faith.