Translated and abridged by Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Miracles were no novelty for Rabbi Zeira. The Talmud in Baba Metzia 85a elates that the third-century scholar fasted for a hundred days in order to protect himself from the fires of hell. But Rabbi Zeira was not content with theoretical preparations. Once a month he would test himself by sitting down in a burning furnace, to see if he would feel the heat. He didn't. (Once his clothes were singed, but that story is for another time.)
Yet, on very windy days, Rabbi Zeira was careful not to walk among the palm-trees, lest a strong wind should knock a tree over. His caution in orchards seems bizarre. Why should a man who can sit unharmed in a burning furnace be concerned about the possibility of a falling tree?
The Talmud (Shabbat 32a) counsels the following attitude towards miracles:
"One should never put himself in a dangerous situation and say, 'A miracle will save me.' Perhaps the miracle will not come. And even if a miracle occurs, one's merits are reduced."
The Sages learned that one should not rely on miracles from Jacob. When Jacob returned home after twenty years in Laban's house, he greatly feared meeting his brother Esau. He prayed to God, "I am unworthy of all the kindness and faith that You have shown me" (Gen. 32:11). The Sages explained Jacob's prayer in this way: "I am unworthy due to all the kindness and faith that You have shown me." Your miracles and intervention have detracted from my merits.
We need to examine this concept. What is so wrong with relying on miracles? Does it not show greater faith? And why should miracles come at the expense of one's spiritual accomplishments?
The Function of Skepticism
Skepticism is a natural, healthy trait. Miracles can have a positive moral influence, but they also have a downside. Reliance on miracles can lead to a weakened or even warped sense of reality.
At certain times in history, God disrupted natural law in order to increase faith and knowledge. However, this intervention in nature was always limited as much as possible, in order that we should not belittle the importance of personal effort and initiative. This is where skepticism fulfills its purpose. Our natural inclination to doubt the occurrence of miracles helps offset these negative side effects, keeping us within the framework of the naturally-ordered world, which is the greatest good that God continually bestows to us. It is preferable that we do not rely on divine intervention, but rather say, 'Perhaps a miracle will not occur.'
Miracles and Nature
Ultimately, both miracles and natural events are the work of God. So how do they differ? A miracle occurs when we are unable to succeed through our own efforts. By its very nature, a miracle indicates humanity's limitations, even helplessness. When miracles occur, we are passive, on the receiving end.
Natural events are also 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 fulfills God's will — the attainment of the highest level of perfection for His creations.
Jacob 'used up' merits when he required God's intervention to protect him from Laban and Esau. He admitted to God, "I am unworthy due to all the kindness and faith that You have shown me." But Jacob later regained spiritual greatness through his active struggle against the mysterious angel. "For you have struggled with angels and men, and have overcome them" (Gen. 32:29).
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 70-72. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 166-168)
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Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs http://ravkookTorah.org, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community. He is also the author of Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim Publications, 2006).