Masorti Judaism

The Miracle of Nature

By Jonny Kay

Miracle. What does this word mean to you? Winning the lottery? Being the sole survivor of a plane crash? The laws of physics? The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency”. 

Personally, I don’t like that definition. It draws a distinction between nature and divine agency. Take for example today’s reading for the seventh day of Pesach, which concludes the Exodus story. Having released the Israelites, Pharaoh decides to pursue his former slave workforce into the desert with all the might of his vast army. Moses is instructed by God to lift up his rod and hold out his arm over the sea. “And the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground” (Exodus 14:21, 22). Pharaoh’s army then follows the Israelites into the parted sea, only for the entire army to be enveloped by the returning waters, with not one person surviving. 

This event has been analysed by meteorologists and oceanographers at the American National Center for Atmospheric Research with a keen interest in the relationship between science and the Hebrew Bible. The 2010 study by Carl Drews and Weiqing Han claims to be able to explain the parting of the waters using the natural phenomenon of ‘wind setdown’. It found that at a specific point in the Nile Delta, a wind of 63 mph, lasting for 12 hours, would have pushed back waters estimated to be 6 feet deep. This would have exposed mud flats for 4 hours, creating a dry passage about 2 to 2.5 miles long and 3 miles wide for the Israelites to cross. Then, as soon as the winds stopped, the waters would have come rushing back. Does this sound like a miracle to you or just the perfect storm? But why does there have to be a distinction between divine agency and nature/science? Are the astounding laws of mathematics and physics applied in nature not spiritual enough? 

Of all the mathematical concepts, I find the rule of probability the most astonishing and humbling, especially when considered in the context of Jewish existence. The Earth is approx. 4.543 billion years old, our species has been on Earth for about 300,000 years and Jews for let’s say 4,000 years. So, our Jewish existence spans 0.00009% of the Earth’s. Now consider the number of times nations have sought to exterminate us throughout the course of human history and the probability of Jewish existence shrinks further. 

Whilst certainly against the odds, mathematics only tells half of the story. I believe that our survival is not a result of a divine intervention or dumb luck, but is instead down to the power of our resolve. I believe that there has only ever been one moment of divine agency (or ‘miracle’ if you will): the creation of matter. With this, God set in motion a sequence of events that created the framework of natural laws that, against all probability but with a huge amount of will, have resulted in our existence here today. 

Jonny Kay is a member of New North London Synagogue

Posted on 5 April 2018

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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