INSIGHT
5772 - #17

Beshalach

NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL

            The events of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, and Kriat Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Reed Sea, demand of us to confront the concept of the supernatural.1 I state that it is the concept that we must confront and not the supernatural itself for, in our present time, we don’t truly experience the supernatural; our only real encounter with it is conceptually in our Torah literature. This, of course, is not to say that there are no miracles today for, of course, there are and God’s Providence is eternal. What we do not encounter today, though, are events that publicly defy the laws of nature and that can only be described as the product of the intervention of the One Who is above nature. As such, it is not possible for us to personally describe and/or define an encounter with the supernatural. We, though, are told of past events when such encounters occurred and we are to derive insights from such descriptions. In this vein, we are indeed to confront the concept of the supernatural – but how?

            On a simple level, it would seem that the answer to any such question would be pretty straightforward. Through reading about the reality of supernatural events in history, we are to recognize that there is a Force above nature. Yet, what is highlighted by such a recognition is also the reality of nature and the need to further question its role. We can understand a world bound by certain natural laws and we could possibly understand a world not bound by any such laws but directly governed openly by the Will of God; it is the co-existence of the two realms that is most difficult to comprehend. This is not simply a reflection of the question of why there are no longer any open miracles although this fact is part of the issue. An immense difficulty in our confrontation with the concept of the supernatural is that it always co-existed with the realm of the natural. To perceive the supernatural demands a prior perception of the natural but once one perceives the supernatural, how is it possible to again perceive the natural as natural? In Shemot 14:31, we are told that the Jewish People saw all the remarkable, supernatural events of Kriat Yam Suf and fully believed in Hashem, above nature. Shortly thereafter, though, in Shemot 15:22-16:4, we are told that the nation was concerned about hunger and thirst, seemingly approaching the matter solely from the realm of the natural. How are we to comprehend the supernatural if those who experienced it still felt so bound by nature?2

            Rabbi Avishai David, Darosh Darash Yosef, Beshalah: Hallel over the Miraculous and the Ordinary presents Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as maintaining that there are two kinds of Shirah, of song in praise of God. “The first is recited over miraculous and supernatural events in which the Divine Will transcends the laws of nature…On the other hand, there is a shirah that is recited over nature’s cyclical patterns.” According to the Rav, although both are necessary, the latter one is the better one. In a certain way, there seems to be values perceivable in the God in nature that are not ascertainable through an encounter with God’s supernatural activities. The realm of the natural is, as such, not just simply a realm of laws and principles by which the world normally functions. The realm of the natural is its own unique presentation of God. From the supernatural activities of Hashem, we are to gain one set of insights into the Divine. From His activities in nature, we are to gain another set of insights. We are to acquire both sets. Our further challenge is to create a bridge between these two realms by which we can also protect ourselves from the perils of the chasm between them. The Dor De’ah, the Generation of the Desert, could not forsake the realm of the natural even as they experienced the reality of the supernatural for they knew that there were aspects of the Divine that were only manifested in the natural realm. They, as such, even as they experienced the supernatural, were most causally affected by the natural. The challenge -- one in which they sadly failed -- was to determine how to combine the two realms into one consciousness, both in terms of how to behave and how to relate to God.

            We are thus to understand that the realm of the natural is one specific presentation of God and the realm of the supernatural is a decisively different presentation. When God acted in a supernatural manner, it was not meant to supplant the understandings of the Deity that emerged from an encounter with the realm of the natural but it was intended to add another perspective. The challenge was, thus, how to incorporate this new perspective with the already existent one. How does one, thereby, relate to both the natural and the supernatural since both, in tandem, reflect God? This was the tension that faced the desert generation.

            This is also the tension that we encounter as we confront the concept of the supernatural. Our dominant encounter with God is obviously through the realm of the natural and it is through this realm that we gain our greatest insights into our relationship with and understanding of the Deity. It is the realm that we experience. Nonetheless, in acknowledging the supernatural in history, we recognize that God’s presentation in nature is not because He is bound by nature but because He chooses to present Himself in this world in this manner. We cannot say how we would respond to the open, revelation of the supernatural. We cannot say how our minds would attempt to incorporate both realms of the natural and supernatural into our daily lives and daily decisions. Acknowledging the concept of the supernatural, as presented through our study of Torah, however, does change our very perception of the natural. The laws of nature are not simply what exist but they are what were created to exist. They, thus, inherently are a reflection of God’s Will.3 We may still not be able to comprehend the supernatural but through the recognition of its existence in history, we are further driven to see God within the natural.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

 


Footnotes

1 This is clear according to Ramban, Shemot 6:2 who maintains that the essence of what occurred at these events was clearly outside of nature. There are those who present Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 2:29, however, as maintaining that all these events could actually be explained through the laws of nature; the result being an absence of the supernatural and thus no need to confront it. A close reading of the Rambam, though, does not truly support such a conclusion. It would seem, rather, that, according to Rambam, supernatural events do occur but such cessations of nature are only temporary. Furthermore, it is God’s primary desire for the world to exist solely pursuant to the laws of nature without any need for supernatural intervention. Nevertheless, at certain times in history, though, God did have to act supernaturally. Yetziat Mitzrayim and Kriat Yam Suf were examples of such instances. As such, even according to this view, there is a need to confront the supernatural.

2 Of course, T.B. Arachin 15a includes these events in God’s criticism, in Bamidbar 14:22, of ten tests to which the Jewish People subjected Him prior to the sin of the Spies. As such, this clinging on to the realm of the natural may have actually been a weakness, even a culpable weakness. My problem, though, is how was it even possible to maintain such an allegiance? Supernatural events occurred even as the nation complained. Given the open reality of the supernatural, how could there have even been any allegiance to the realm of the natural?  

3 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 10:6 may, thus, be stating that the study of the natural with such a recognition will develop a love of God.

Nishma 2012

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