5769 - #09


            T.B. Baba Metzia 87b makes a remarkable assertion based on its understanding of Bereishit 24:1. The verse states, in contemplation of Avraham’s focus on finding a wife for Yitzchak, that Avraham was old. The gemara, in describing the significance of this statement, states that prior to this case of Avraham becoming old, people did not age. As Maharsha explains, of course people got older; after all, it would be a reality that one person had lived for so many years while another had lived for a different number of years. There are also many prior verses that speak of older people. What we are being told, though, is that the look of age, for example the whitening of hair, did not exist until this change occurred in Avraham. The gemara then continues to explain that illness was also not existent until Yaakov, as indicated by Bereishit 48:1 which informs us about Yosef being told that his father was sick. The gemara then adds that, based on its understanding of Melachim II 13:14, Elisha was actually the first person to recover from an illness; prior to that sick people simply eventually died from their illness. As one can imagine, the commentators have numerous questions regarding these statements. Anaf Yosef, Baba Metzia 87b, for example, asks how the gemara could state that sickness began with Yaakov when a midrash states that Avraham prayed for the sick.1 There are challenges from verses as well as from ma’amarei Chazal, statements from the Rabbis. What interests me, though, is what is this gemara stating about science and nature, about our view of history? What does it really mean that the signs of aging only began with Avraham?

            For reason to exist, and thus for us to develop theories and be able not only to derive one idea from another but also to use thought to direct us into the future, it is necessary for there to be some level of stability into the future. If we have experienced the fact that water puts out a fire, we can make the assumption that, if we confront a situation where fire is destroying property or, worse, threatening a person, we can use water to extinguish the fire and avert the potential harm and damage. This is because we assume stability in the world of nature which allows thought and reason to assist us in determining how to live. The changes in nature that this gemara seems to be identifying challenge this possibility. If the laws of science can change, our ability to determine what will happen based upon a reasoned understanding of what already occurred is non-existent. This would seem to be a possible lesson from this gemara.

            Of course, there are limitations to such an assertion that this gemara challenges reason and nature. In fact, the gemara identifies specific changes that occurred, each one, only once in history. Prior to the change there was stability in nature based upon certain rules, and subsequent to the change there was stability in nature based upon different rules. In either epoch, there was still stability and thus the ability to reason was still valuable. Yet, while changes in the rules of nature may happen very infrequently, this gemara still does seem to indicate that they are still possible and thus we should still be aware of their possibility, no matter how remote the possibility of these changes may be. This would still seem to challenge, at least on some level, our belief in the stability of science and nature and our faith in reason. On the other hand, it would seem to foster our belief in God’s involvement in this world. Rules change because God wills them to change. Reason can, perhaps, hide God from us. The same occurrence happening again and again can, perhaps, make us lose sight of God Who is above rules. Avraham prayed for a distinguishing mark between himself and his son Yitzchak who looked just like him. God answered Avraham’s request and the signs of aging were introduced into the world to distinguish Avraham from Yitzchak. The lesson may be that we should relate to God, not nature.

            The fact is that miracles are often cited to indicate the reality of a Divine Authority above nature. The plagues were intended to make the Egyptians recognize this truth.2 Eliyahu set the stage for the miracle on Har Carmel in order to prove the existence of Hashem at the exclusion of the deities of idolatry.3 This, though, was not the case here. No doubt that these changes in nature were miracles just like other miracles but there was a distinction. In a standard case of miracles, God suspends the rules of nature to show that there is a Force above nature. In the case of Avraham, Yaakov and Elisha, God did not suspend the rules of nature; he changed them. Before the change, rules existed; after the change, rules existed. We could still use reason to determine how to apply these rules in variant situations. Perhaps such changes may still indicate that we cannot fully rely upon any set of rules – as the rules can change – but rules still exist and, thus, so does the benefit of thought and the benefits and challenges that go with this reality. These were not constant changes occurring often to continuously show God’s control over nature. They were substantial changes that occurred, each one, once in history. The question is not, as such, why God specifically suspends the rules of science and nature. That may be to indicate His Existence above nature. The question is rather: why does He change them?4

            The greatest effect of this change in the rules actually is upon our understanding of history or, more specifically, our understanding of reality over time. In any one epoch where the rules of nature are the same, we may not directly face the problem of change. This issue actually only arises when we consider and compare epochs. If there is change, we cannot look back upon history in the same manner that we would if there was no change. The lessons of the past and our understanding of the past are greatly affected. History, in fact, becomes more animated. The movement of life over time is not linear but must be seen as more dynamic. This is also the case when science does not actually change but our understanding of it does. It is also the case when we encounter changes in how people think, in social consciousness. Whatever we say, we are called upon to recognize that such a statement is made given certain understandings of life, of reality, of the nature of humanity. We, as such, must confront our assumptions and recognize the role that they play in our conclusions. God changing the rules or, the more frequent case, a change in our understanding of the rules forces us to think anew, to see life anew and ultimately gain a greater perception of what Creation is actually all about. Our minds are still called upon to understand reality. The challenge of a dynamic reality further calls upon us to understand the factors of thought upon which Creation was established.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 He concludes that while general sickness existed prior to Yaakov, the gemara is referring to critical, life-threatening illness, with Yaakov being the first such case and Elisha being the first to recover from such an illness.

2 Shemot 7:5.

3 Melachim I c. 18.

4 While I am asking this question in a much broader way, it can also be asked in a more specific way. Why did God not simply perform a miracle and make Avraham specifically look more aged? Why did He, rather, change the laws of Biology and bring the transformation of aging for all beings into reality?

(c) Nishma, 2008


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