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Believing in Miracles
by Braha Bender
Let me put it plainly: Parashas Bashalach says that the sea split. Do you believe that?
It visualizes beautifully: a cold, windy night, a nation of some three million men, women, and children huddled at the edge of dark, raging waters, the luminous presence of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) reaching out a majestic hand over the waves.
The Midrash adds that not only did the sea split, but that Disney’s The Prince of Egypt got it all wrong. It wasn’t a single, muddy tunnel that the Israelites stumbled through. Come on, if G-d can make the sea split, don’t you think He can cough up something a little more comfortable than some second-rate, makeshift miracle?
In fact, says the Midrash, the red sea split into twelve separate tunnels, one for each tribe. Underfoot, the tunnels felt and appeared to be paved in a palatial marble design. Fruit trees grew along the sides of the tunnels, providing succulent nourishment to any Israelite who happened to feel a little hungry as he or she walked through this wonderland. The translucent walls of water, clear as diamonds, stood hundreds of meters high and could be seen for miles around.
The scene grows lovelier and lovelier: “The pillar of fire lit the tunnels like a room filled with many candles,” describes the Yalkut Me’am Loez. “The salty sea was drinkable like fresh, sweet, spring water.” (Now how much do you think that would market for? Evian, eat your heart out.)
But, again, I put it to you. Do you really believe all that? Let me make it easier: do you believe in miracles at all? Because sometimes it’s hard not to.
The Oxford English Dictionaries define “miracle” as “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency”. (I like the idea of a divine agency. What does that look like? The Bureau of Welcome Inexplicables? Sounds vaguely Harry Potter...)
Anyway, Torah defines “miracle” very similarly. The word nes literally means “flag” or “banner”. This is because when an event takes place that cannot be explained by natural or scientific laws, it points like a flag or banner directly at Yours Truly. And I don’t mean this author. I mean the great author. The author writing you.
But many of us find the idea of a miracle distasteful. The typical western take on life is framed by things like the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and modern science. Humankind has recently mastered so much so quickly that it is hard to imagine that anything could be truly inexplicable.
Better yet, our researchers, scholars, and innovators are flying headlong into the twenty first century. New inventions and revelations are everyday news. The past is a loaded gun shooting us directly into an unknown but savory future. We believe that we will discover and master everything.
The upshot of all this is that, as far as many of us are concerned, a “miracle” is either a myth or a scientific discovery waiting to happen. No divine agency needed. So much for the Bureau of Welcome Inexplicables. And so much for G-d.
But modern science is a slippery anachronism. The arrogance of the uneducated layperson rests on faith in the scholars. For the scholars themselves, the universe keeps tripping them into their own self-made trap again and again. In simpler terms, the more we set out to make our universe explicable, the more inexplicable it becomes. The more we know, the less we can explain. Here, I’ll show you.
Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a former MIT professor who participated in the formulation of nuclear non-proliferation treaties with the former Soviet Union, served as a consultant to various governments worldwide, and has been published in Time, Newsweek and Scientific American, puts it much better than I could:
“According to the highly respected and most widely read scientific journal, Scientific American, this [the random, chance development of our universe] would statistically be just about impossible on one roll of the cosmic dice, since the properties of atomic and sub-atomic particles conducive to forming life are so specific.
Just a few of the many examples of “luck”:
· For complex life in any form, there must be three spatial dimensions (length, width, height), and one time dimension (time only moves forward, never backward). Further, the relationship between mass and gravity must be a very close match to our universe.
· The charge of the proton (the particles in the center of atoms) must be exactly equal and opposite to the charge of an electron (the particles that form a cloud surrounding the center of atoms), even though the proton has a mass 1,837 times that of an electron.
· The force that holds atoms together, the strong nuclear force, is balanced on a knife for allowing hydrogen atoms to be super-abundant in the universe. No hydrogen, no stars. Stars make their light and energy by fusing hydrogen, the lightest of all the elements, into helium, the second lightest of all the elements, and that indirectly means no heavier elements – and hence no life. Carbon, the one element able to form the complex chains required for life, is built from lighter elements within the cores of stars. The process involves a complex, exquisitely-tuned series of reactions.
So tenuous is the process that knighted astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, who started his scientific career as a theological skeptic, was moved to write:
“Would you not say to yourself, ‘Some supercalculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule?’ Of course you would… A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
Among his many books and articles, including the seminal Genesis and the Big Bang, this particular article from Aish.com (Stephen Hawking and God, December 2010) goes on to describe the statistical unlikelihood of the earth forming as a platform hospitable to life. A fifth section in the article explodes the real elephant on the coffee table, which is the question of how sentient life arose out of inert matter at all. Two later articles, The Origins of Life and Evolution: Rationality Versus Randomness address this miracle in greater depth.
Whoops! Did I say “this miracle”? I meant “this extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws”. Wait a minute…
Ironically, it turns out that the more we master and discover, the more we are faced with the incalculable statistical improbability of our existing at all. Rather than revoking divine agency, the tools, skills, and discoveries of modern science end up showing just how likely it is that a purposeful intelligence is involved in every aspect of our lives. When King David said, “The heavens speak of the Creator’s glory and the sky proclaims G-d’s handiwork,” (Tehillim-Psalms 19:2) it seems that he was speaking frankly.
As an aside, once we have covered the miraculous nature of the universe and human life coming into being, why don’t we dip a toe into smaller-scale chemistry and biology? Ever study how a peach tree works? Or the eye? Or all the processes that your body is required to execute with near perfect precision in order to ensure that you continue breathing?
And you think that the sea splitting is so miraculous?
The “Strong East Wind” Theory
Look, I’m not telling you what to believe. Just consider this a public service message. Believing in miracles is not so far-fetched when you are living in one.
But don’t get scared off. Round about the 1950s, Immanuel Velikovsky proposed that, sure, the sea split when the Jews left Egypt just like the Torah records. No problem. But no miracle either. No, said Velikovsky, it was just that the planet Earth came so catastrophically close to the planet Venus that all sorts of weird phenomena were bound to occur. And if you believe that then I have a bridge to sell you.
The Torah provides its own Velikovsky-like escape route: “Hashem moved the sea with a strong east wind all the night…” (Shemos-Exodus 14:21). You want to believe the sea split because of a strong east wind? That’s your prerogative, says the Torah. You want to believe that it was because of planet Venus? Go right ahead.
Why? Because, according to G-d, the most important rule in the game of life is human free choice. Through the agencies of Torah and science, Hashem makes His presence known for all rational, intelligent people. But He also always leaves a loophole for those who want to weasel out of rationality. All the statistical probability in the world won’t convince a person dead set on running away from a relationship with G-d. The reason free choice is so important to G-d is that, by definition, a close, happy, loving relationship requires two willing participants. And that is exactly what we were created for.
Overwhelming evidence indicates that not only does He exist, but that He is actively involved in our lives and caring for us on a moment-to-moment basis in more ways than we could begin to fathom. The evidence that Sinai took place just as depicted and that the oral tradition remains intact and robust to this day is similarly overwhelming.
But the choice is ours. We can choose to be rational or not. We can choose to believe in miracles or not. We can choose to have a relationship with G-d or not. Just don’t be surprised, warns the Torah playfully in Parashas Beshalach, when those all turn out to be the same thing.