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The Miracle Worker (Chukat 07/13/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

The Miracle Worker

The Children of Israel are thirsty. Moses asks God for help; God tells him to take his staff and go speak to a rock and water will flow out from it. However, Moses hits the rock instead and water gushes forward. This act, in itself, is not surprising, because facing a similar situation thirty-nine years earlier, Moses was told to hit the rock in order to bring forth water for the Children of Israel, which he did. Now you might ask, “What difference does it make? Either way, it’s a miracle when rocks give forth water.” The distinction is that for the first time in the Bible, a human has changed a miracle.

Professor Richard Elliott Friedman notes[1], “This is an all-important step in a gradual shift in the balance of control of miraculous phenomena in the Bible. Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Isaac perform no miracles.” God brings about miracles in Egypt and by the Red Sea, but now Moses changes a miracle. “This shift will continue in the biblical books that follow the Torah, and it is one of the central developments of the Bible: Joshua will call for the sun to stand still in the skies. By calling for a miracle on his own, without direction from God, he goes even further than Moses. Later, Samson has powers implanted in him at birth, so that he is free to use them as he wishes all his life. Later still, Elijah and Elisha use miracles for a variety of personal purposes. It appears that, starting with Moses, God is entrusting humans with ever more responsibility and control of their destiny.”

Yet, Friedman then notes a change: “by the end of the Bible, miracles cease. There are no visible miracles in the late books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Humans rather must direct their destiny with their own natural human powers, not with endowments of miraculous powers from God. Through the course of the Bible, humans are forced to grow up and become more self-reliant.”

It’s a sublime, transcendent concept, but is Friedman correct? Have human influenced miracles really ceased? Have we truly become free from reliance upon miracles?

When one studies Jewish history, it seems that miracle workers never ceased from being in the picture.
In times of famine during the first century BCE, the Pharisee, Choni the Circle Maker, would draw a circle around himself, telling God he’s not budging from there unless it rains, and God would send rain.

Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa was a miracle worker of the post Temple generation (70 C.E.). His daughter once put vinegar in the Shabbat lamp instead of oil, but he lived on a supernatural plane. He said, “The God who decreed oil should burn can also make vinegar burn,” and so it did.

Miracles continue with numerous stories in the Talmud, the most notable being when Rabbi Zeira accidentally killed someone, so he prayed and brought the person back to life.

The Chasidic movement emphasized the role of a rabbi not only as a spiritual leader but also as a miracle worker. Unbelievable Chassidic tales fill tomes of libraries and continued in our day with the late Satmar and Lubavitcher Rebbes.

In Israel, the Chazon Ish and the Babi Sali were famous miracle workers from whom thousand sought blessings and found miraculous healing.

My own mother-in-law (number 1) experienced a Baba Sali miracle. After having major surgery in her bout with Crohn’s disease, the doctors told her she would not be able to have any more children, and indeed her fertility ceased. She sent a family member to Israel to receive a blessing from the Babi Sali, and he returned with a bottle of water that the rabbi had blessed. He told her to drink daily from the water and rub it on her belly, while continuing to refill it as it emptied. In no time, she conceived and eventually bore three more children.

One of my first experiences of Orthodoxy involved a “Purim Rebbe”. When I was a student at the University of Michigan, there was a Satmar rabbi in Detroit. He was sent there by the renowned Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg and was given the gift of bestowing blessings on Purim. As I entered his home, he sat on a throne placed on top of a table, with a phone in one hand and a stack of dishes in the other. On Purim, people from all over the country, hoping for a match for their child, would telephone him. Saying Mazal Tov and breaking a plate, his blessing ensured the end of loneliness for countless singles. He even blessed me that I should industriously learn Torah, and thanks to his blessing, I’m your rabbi today!

At Friday night services, I posed a question, “Is seeking a blessing from a righteous person something spiritual and pure, or is it showing a lack of self-reliance and a step backwards for humankind?

Our group suggested that the blessing from a righteous person might work like the placebo effect. The miracle worker’s blessing for finding the right match or conceiving a child could instill confidence in the recipient and make a psychological difference. Likewise, barren couples who adopt a child sometimes conceive on their own afterwards, because they no longer feel the stress and pressure to have a child. The righteous person’s blessing might alleviate the petitioner’s stress and allow them to succeed as well.

While miracle workers may not play a role in most of our lives, and humankind, in general, has learned to grow up and become more self-reliant, nonetheless, blessings have their place, and miracles continue to amaze and inspire us.

[1] Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (Kindle Locations 29017-29032). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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