This weeks parsha is dominated by Avraham’s successful search for a wife for his son Yitzchak. Eliezer, Avraham’s loyal servant, is sent to Avraham’s old home town to find the appropriate match. His prayers for a successful mission are answered when he sees Rivka arrive at the well to draw water at which point he immediately identifies her as the wife for Yitzchak. What is not immediately clear is what it was that Eliezer saw that convinced him immediately that this was likely to be the girl he was looking for?
The answer given is that he saw the water of the well miraculously rise up to Rivka as she approached. This supernatural occurrence was all Eliezer needed to realise Rivka was someone exceptional. This miraculous or super-natural event raises a number of questions:
1. Why did this miracle (and others experienced by righteous individuals in the Torah) happen?
2. Why don’t we experience miracles frequently?
3. If it is possible to experience the supernatural, or miraculous, in this world, what is the purpose of nature, or cause and effect, at all?
In fact the very existence of miracles seemingly presents a major philosophical problem: If G-d created a world which runs according to basic laws of cause and effect, or nature, then this must be the ‘best’ world to create i.e. the most perfect system to ensure the running of the world. For example, G-d could have made it that on some days a ball thrown in the air would return to the ground whilst on others it would remain in mid-air. There is nothing that forced G-d to create a world of cause and effect where there is a consistency to the way things work. But, given that He did, this must be a perfect set-up. Surely then, any deviation from the ‘laws of nature’ represents an imperfection? A miracle is necessary to achieve something that nature can not. If so, the world G-d created, governed by nature and laws of cause and effect, is imperfect i.e. it only works most of the time? This difficultly is premised on a basic assumption – that there is a real qualitative distinction between the natural and the super-natural/miraculous. Nature is the norm and miracles are the abnormal. In reality however there is absolutely no conceptual distinction between nature and ‘miracles.’ Essentially natural phenomena are no more natural than freak miracles. We, however, are so used to the norm, nature, that we view it as a necessary given. When one plants an apple seed in the ground we consider it normal that a few years later that seed has turned into a sizeable fruit-bearing tree millions of times bigger than the seed from which it comes. There is no reason, in essence, why this should be so any more than water rising when someone approaches a well. It just happens to be that the miracle of seeds turning into trees is a frequently witnessed one that doesn’t surprise us.
So if nature is just a frequently experienced miracle, why does nature exist at all? Why don’t we experience what we refer to miracles much more often as Rivka did? Our free will is what sets us apart from every other creation. Our use of our free will, and the challenges it raises, is what gives life its purpose and meaning. What sort of free will would we have if we experienced clear and undeniable miracles every day? Imagine for example that every time a person spoke badly of someone a bolt of lightening suddenly paralysed him for 30 seconds and left him in excruciating pain whilst everyone else remained untouched. Before long his ability to decide whether to ever abuse the power of speech would have been removed. Before long we would all just be highly developed robots. Life would cease to be worth living. So living in a world that runs according to consistent rules of cause and effect is a necessary condition for a life of choice and therefore meaning. That explains both why G-d chooses to run the world through the perceived intermediary of nature, and doesn’t constantly break these ‘rules’ through miracles. Why then was G-d happy to break the rules for Rivka (and others)? As mentioned, in reality there is no difference between nature and miracles. The laws of nature are simply the miracles we frequently experience. The reason for their frequency is to maintain our free will. But if someone is sufficiently attuned to what nature really is, then experiencing actual miracles in no way undermines that free will. For someone who views an apple seed producing an apple tree as being no less miraculous than water rising to a bucket there is no reason why the water shouldn’t rise. If so it is no surprise that spiritually attuned people were able to frequently experience unnatural occurrences. Our inability to do so is due to the fact that such experiences would be extremely damaging for us. For us, practically speaking, an appreciation of the true role of nature is crucial. An internalised appreciation of the fact that ultimately nature is simply a façade that allows us to live with free will, will change how we view the world around us. A truly Torah observant lifestyle is one in which mitzvot are a means of connecting to G-d and developing a relationship to Him. One of the main obstacles in developing that relationship is the difficulty we have experiencing G-d on a day-to-day level. If we are able to relate to nature as simply the tool with which G-d operates the world (in the same way a pen is the tool with which a person writes, where clearly it is the person we view as doing the writing and not the pen) we will find that challenge much more manageable.