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An Ethical Directive From Creation

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Sages), chapter 5, Mishnah 6, makes a very perplexing statement. ”10 things were created (day 6) late Friday afternoon, during dusk (the time from sunset until the stars appear.) They are the mouth in the ground that swallowed Korach and his followers; the mouth of the well that accompanied the Israelites in the desert; the mouth of Bilam’s donkey; the rainbow, the manna; the staff of Moshe; the Shamir (the worm created to cut the stones for the Holy Temple); the letters; the inscription on the tablets; and the stone tablets…”

My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Israel Chait, asked two questions. What is the idea of miracles and more important why is this idea brought down in Pirkei Avot, a section of the Oral Law that deals with ethical behavior? What follows is a synopsis of his explanation.

The Torah’s idea of miracles runs counter to the notion held by most religious practitioners even that held by many Jews. For most, miracles are thought to be a sudden interference by God on behalf of a people or individual. God, they maintain, is stirred to intervene at that moment due to some untoward event. The good people can only be rescued by His decision now to act in a way that by-passes the laws of physics.

However, our sages, through this Mishnah, are telling us something very different about how we should view miracles. The true insight and approach of the Torah is to tell us that all miracles were programmed by God into the plan of creation. Based on God’s infinite wisdom, every miracle was programmed into the fabric of the universe from the very start. This means that God operates only out of wisdom.

Most people, however, want to feel that God intervenes in our time and space. But this notion is false and alien to Judaism for two reasons. First, God is outside of time since time itself only came into existence with the creation of the physical world. Second, the only way we can truly relate to God is via our “tzelem Elokim,” “the image of God.” (the unique intellect of man, that is the essence of man) Through its use, we can see His wisdom in the workings of the universe and Torah. Then we can begin to transition by aligning ourselves with His reality. Only in this way does mankind have a relationship with God.

Where does the false notion of miracles come from? Due to our physical nature and desire for security, people are driven by religious emotion. Our sages are teaching that God’s relationship to man, on the contrary, is completely through wisdom. During the first few moments of creation, when everything was set to unravel, God’s providence was also set. His providence and watchfulness were inserted, so to speak, at creation, and emerge at different moments in human history as part of God’s infinite wisdom.

Another source for this false notion of miracles stems from a different part of man’s personality. A person’s sense of worth and self-importance, his egocentricity, propels him to fantasy. The greatest manifestation of this personality flaw is for a person to think that he has a special relationship with God, the Creator of the universe. Such people look for and expect God to intervene on their behalf. Humanity searches for a personal relationship with God and expects that this relationship is reciprocated, particularly in times of hardship and travail.

This attitude is in complete contrast to that of our matriarchs, patriarchs, and Torah scholars down through the ages. King David expresses the correct notion in Psalms 8, “When I behold Your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established; what is man that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You think of him?” It is an astounding idea, according to the Torah’s philosophy, that God has any relationship to mankind. The Torah’s idea is the exact opposite of the common religious notion. King David continues with the next verse, “Yet You have made him only a little less than the angels and crowned him with honor and glory.” The commentary Metzudas David and others explain that this verse is referencing man’s mission in life, to have an intellectual experience with God as do the angels.

What then is the ethical lesson that caused the sages to place this Mishnah in Pirkei Avot? Ethics is the study of values. Once the value is identified, we know where to direct our effort. If we cherish and seek a real relationship with God, we must know upon what this relationship is based on. We discover from this Mishnah that it is based on knowledge. Hence, a fundamental ethical lesson we learn from the story of creation is that we cannot just relate to God however we wish. Our personal value then becomes the acquisition of knowledge and in turn, we direct our effort and energy in that endeavor.  It is only in this activity that man finds his fulfillment and relationship with God. 

As we embark this Shabbat, beginning again the yearly cycle of reading the Torah, let us strive to have a more true, firm, and real relationship with the Creator through our increased study of His Torah and the laws of His universe.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Robert Kaplan