Monthly Archives: October 2020

Miracle of Miracles: Noah 5781

What to make of miracles? They are among the most dramatic and beloved features of biblical narratives, but are distant from what most believe about reality. Wait, are they? Many modern people operate on a split screen, their rational analyses coexisting with magical thinking about fate, luck and miracles. Neuroscience has alerted us to the presence of parallel response systems in the brain. The prefrontal cortex engages in rational analysis, while the limbic system governs emotional life. So there may be an organic basis for inconsistent interpretations of reality. Is there a way to integrate our thought processes, to reconcile irrational belief in miracles with data driven analysis? If so, can this help us relate to Parashat Noah as more than myth?

Consider the approach of Nahmanides (Ramban, Gerona, 1194-1270) the great scholar of halakhah and kabbalah who served also as physician and communal leader. It is difficult to extract a systematic theology from Ramban because he intentionally veils his esoteric ideas and scatters elements of them across many different works. Fortunately we have assistance from modern scholars, most recently Moshe Halbertal with his masterful book, Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism (Yale UP).  Chapter 4, “Miracles and the Chain of Being,” draws on Ramban’s Torah Commentary as well as Sha’ar Ha-Gemul, the final chapter of his book Torat Ha-Adam, which presents Jewish beliefs and practices around death and the afterlife.

Ramban’s version of modern science was a popular theory that the world was generally governed by the constellations. Before you dismiss this as astrology (which, I concede, it is), consider that this concept might be more akin to physics. Constellations are vast celestial systems that demonstrate order and predictability in the universe, and therefore model the physical laws that govern reality. Ramban asserts, however, that there are exceptions. The Land of Israel evades this type of control, as do the original and ultimate eras of creation, and so too do certain righteous individuals. These exceptions link reality to the realm of miracles.

Rebounding from Crisis with Strength: Bereshit 5781

Like millions of American children in the 1970s, I tuned in weekly to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The opening sequence showed skiers gracefully racing down a mountain, and then spectacularly wiping out while the narrator promised viewers “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Something tragic and true was contained in this message. The possibility of calamity makes moments of triumph precious and worth pursuing.

The same narrative device is employed by the Torah. Dazzling victories are paired with ignominious defeats. Consider, for example, three victorious moments in the Torah: The dedication of the Tabernacle; the declaration by Israel at Sinai that they will “heed and hear” God’s teaching; and God’s proclamation at the end of Creation that all of it was “very good.”

Each moment completes an arduous process, signaling blessing and joy. Yet the Torah barely allows one to celebrate before delivering a devastating narrative twist. What does this say about the nature of victory, and what can it teach us about resilience in a pandemic?

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