The Natural, the Supernatural and the Counter-natural

VaEra-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Therefore say to the Bnei Yisrael-chidren of Israel, “I am HaShem. I will extricate you from the burdens of Egypt and free you from their slavery. I will redeem you with a demonstration of My power and with great acts of judgment.

-Shemos 6:6

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and thus will produce the opportunities to display many miraculous wonders and signs in Egypt.

-Shemos 7:5

At the end of parshas Bo, in validating the centrality of the mitzvos that serve as reminder to the exodus from Egypt, the Ramban famously explains that the makkos– the 10 plagues, were meant to pierce the veil that conceals G-d.  The strands of which that veil is woven are the Laws of Nature. All of the makkos were openly miraculous, flouting numerous Laws of Nature in the most overt way.

The Maharal and the Chidushei haRi”m explain that the 10 makkos , seven of which occur in our Sidra, were the bridge between the asara ma’amoros shebahem nivra haolam– the 10 pronouncements through which the world was created, and the aseres hadibros-the 10 commandments through which the Torah was revealed.  A world that does not perceive god as the Creator is unready to accept G-d as the Divine Legislator.  By laying bare the existence of a Force that superseded Nature, that could utterly manipulate Nature and that could bend Nature to It’s supernatural Will, the makkos removed any the lingering doubts about the existence of G-d the Creator and proved the truth of numerous principles of our faith.

Thus understood, one could jump to the erroneous conclusion that the G-d-concealing, illusion-of-independence-projecting, natural order is constantly at odds with G-d. In fact, nature is the regular and consistent expression of the Divine Will.  Why and when the Divine Will chooses to superimpose the hanhagah nisis– the miraculous management of the cosmos upon and, apparently, against the hanhagah tiv’is– the natural management of the cosmos, is something that only the Divine Mind knows.

In this same vein many of us striving to make good moral/ethical choices and grow spiritually regard our own human natures as G-d-negating, mortal enemies. We are conditioned to fight our natural impulses. We associate them with our yetzer hara – inclination to evil. But the pasuk says “everything that HaShem has made is for His own sake.”(Mishlei 16:4) That is to say for His greater Glory.  All of the works of creation are expressions of the Divine will.

When inanimate objects and living beings behave according to the laws of nature they are fulfilling the will of HaShem. The great challenge with things behaving “naturally” is that they appear to be on autopilot.  The Divine Will that created the Laws of Nature and that continues to direct natural law often becomes obscured by natural processes. This is why Torah numerologists have pointed out that Elokim shares an equal numerical value with  hateva-the Nature (86) and why Torah etymologists teach that the root of the word olam-cosmos, world, is he’elam-concealment.

When Rabi Pinchos ben Yair traveled to redeem a captive Jew (pidyon sh’vuyim-redeeming captives, is the highest form of tzedakah-charity) he reached the banks of the Ginai River and could go no further. He commanded the river waters to interrupt their flow so that he could cross through the riverbed and proceed on his mission of mercy. The river responded “you go to do the Will of your Creator and I go (flow) to do the Will of my Creator.  There is only a chance that you will fulfill the Creator’s Will but, so long as I flow, I’m most definitely fulfilling the Creator’s Will. If so, why should I cease my flowing so that you can get going?” (Chulin 7A).

Ultimately the river split for Rabi Pinchos ben Yair and he accomplished his mission of pidyon sh’vuyim. But the “conversation” between him and the river is significant in that it establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that even inanimate things functioning according to the Laws of Nature are doing the will of the Creator, HaShem. It belies the philosophy that Nature opposes G-d. Nature is no more G-d’s enemy than the veil is the face’s adversary.

HaShem brought the cosmos into being through the “10 pronouncements”.  All that exists in the cosmos, and the way in which they function, are expressions of HaShems will. We define a mitzvah as a thought, word or act having a positive and ethical charge.  What makes them “good” or positive is that they are consistent with, and fulfillments of, HaShem’s will.  As such it follows that every one of HaShem’s non-free-will-endowed creatures that behave according to natural law is, in a sense, performing mitzvos.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that just as in the macrocosm, a river running downstream is “running to do with the Will of its Creator” so too, in the microcosm known as man, all the natural impulses induce man to “run to do the Will of his Creator.”  When a man thirsts, it is G-d’s will that he hydrate himself.  When a man hungers, it is G-d’s will that he ingest nutrition.  When a man desires intimacy it is G-d’s will that he procreate.  When a man grows fatigued it is G-d’s will that he sleep. When human acts of eating, drinking, procreating and sleeping are done as responses to the dictates of human nature they too are mitzvos.  When they are indulged in excessively, going beyond the dictates of nature, they are not. This is the point that the gemara is trying to get across when it says that when one engages in physical intimacy that he do so “as if compelled by a demon” (Nedarim 20B). Absent an irresistible compulsion to act, physical intimacy fails to rise to the level of “running to do with the Will of his Creator”

Over the past decade Perek Shirah has gained enormous popularity. This concept is the deeper meaning of Perek Shira.  When we hear a frog croaking cacophonously we run for a pair of earplugs. We hardly consider this croaking to be the music of a symphony orchestra. But when the frog tells King Dovid that “I sing HaShem’s praises day and night” (Zohar Pinchos 222:B)what it really means to say is that just acting naturally and croaking, in accordance with the nature endowed in the frog by its Creator, is sweet music, a “singing of the Divine praise.”

… [The frogs will be] in the homes of your officials and the people, even in your ovens and in the kneading bowls.

-Shemos 7;28

Why did Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah deliver themselves to the fiery furnace, for kiddush HaShem-the sanctification of the Divine Name? They argued a kal v’chomer- a fortiori to themselves: If frogs,[of the second plague] which are not commanded concerning kiddush HaShem yet it is written of them, “and they shall come up and go into your house . . . and into your ovens, and into your kneading bowls.” when are the kneading bowls to be found near the oven? When the oven is hot! [Then we must certainly do so.]

-Pesachim 53B

While behaving “naturally” is the default setting for “running to do with the Will of the Creator” it is essential to remember that in some unusual times and circumstances, supernatural and contra-natural behaviors are required in order to “run to do with the Will of the Creator”. The most basic instinct for all species is the survival instinct. Yet, during redemption process, when HaShem chose to superimpose the supernatural hanhaga nisis upon the hanhaga tiv’is, then, as part of the second plague, the frogs threw themselves into the hot ovens flames contravening their survival instinct.

While humans are endowed with free-will and the rest of G-d’s creatures are not, we must nevertheless learn from them and exercise our free-will choices appropriately. While choosing to maintain our lives and responding to the dictates of our natures is often a mitzvah, making choices that are contra-natural, even to the point of mesirus nefesh and self-destruction, can be “running to do with the Will of the Creator” as well.  As the pasuk says “[HaShem] Who teaches us — from the beasts of the earth, and makes us wiser — from the birds of heaven.”(Iyov 35:11)

As it goes for the macrocosm so it goes for the microcosm.  There is room for the redemptive and the supernaturally, contra-naturally miraculous within human beings as well.

Adapted from: Tzidkas Hatzadik 173

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