–Genesis 18:1 (JPS Tanakh)
When Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch was a child of four or five, he entered into the room of his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, and burst into tears. His teacher in cheder had taught the verse “And G-d revealed himself to Abraham…” “Why,” wept the child, “doesn’t G-d reveal Himself to me?!”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel replied: “When a Jew, a tzaddik, realizes at the age of 99 that he must circumcise himself, that he must continue to perfect himself, he is worthy that G-d should reveal Himself to him.”
-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Tears of a Child”
This is a well-known commentary on this week’s Torah Portion, Vayera and I’m hardly in a position to add to what a great many sages and spiritual luminaries have already stated regarding this portion of the Torah. But in studying the Torah Club commentary (volume 6) for this week on Acts 4:32-5:42, I discovered what could be a tangentially related issue.
Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
–Acts 5:12-16 (ESV)
D. Thomas Lancaster’s lesson on these verses, both in the written text of his commentary and in the Torah Club audio teaching, speaks about “the age of miracles” and whether or not we have miracles today. As we read passages such as the one I quoted above, we Christians may be hard pressed to explain why 2,000 years ago, severely ill and disabled people could be cured simply by having Peter’s shadow fall across them, while today our most fervent prayers and petitions to God fail to prevent a loved one from dying of cancer. Why don’t we see miraculous signs, wonders, and healings in today’s church?
Some say that we do, but because we live in the 21st century, many events that a person 2,000 years ago would have called a miracle, today might be explained as some other phenomena. Even in the church, we are sometimes hesitant to say something is a miracle for fear of appearing foolish. On other occasions, the claims of miraculous events from some seem to be so common that the credibility of witnesses is brought into question.
While I do believe that sometimes miracles do happen today, they don’t seem to be “predictable,” which I guess stands to reason, but they also don’t seem to be predictably produced by an identifiable individual or group of individuals, such as the apostles. When we read about Peter, John, and the other apostles in the early chapters of Acts, it’s as if they’re doing miracles all the time.
One explanation, as Lancaster points out, is that the book of Acts compresses 35 years of history into about two hours worth of reading. It’s easy to get the impression that Peter was healing the sick through miracles every day and several times a day. This is probably untrue and only the “highlights” of the “Acts of the Apostles” were recorded by Luke. All of the other more mundane occurrences in their lives over three and a half decades went unchronicled and passed away into the shadows of history.
But there’s another reason we may not see miracles today the way we see them in Acts.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
–Acts 2:1-4 (ESV)
This is the day when the apostles of Christ (and only the apostles of Christ) received the Holy Spirit. Most Christians think this event is identical to what happens to all people everywhere when they receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (although I’ve yet to hear a modern Christian tell me that they received the Spirit on tongues of fire). But what if this isn’t exactly true?
We know that in Acts 10:44-45 the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his entire household also received the Holy Spirit, but to the best of our knowledge, none of them went on, after the initial event, to perform miraculous healings, signs, and wonders. What’s the difference between Cornelius and Peter? Were the Jews the only ones with the Spirit able to perform miracles, or was something else going on?
It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
–Hebrews 2:3-4 (ESV)
Take a closer look at this verse. According to Lancaster, “those who heard”, that is, those who were direct witnesses of the Messiah, were the apostles. Only the apostles were able to be witnesses of the validity of Jesus “by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his (God’s) will.”
The idea, in this particular explanation, is that during the so-called “age of miracles,” God did not use everyone to perform miracles, and miracles did not occur for just any old reason at all. The miracles were a witness that occurred through those who actually walked and talked with the Master, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.
The apostles could be compared to Abraham as we re-examine the brief Chasidic tale recorded by Rabbi Tauber above. They were “tzaddikim” (Righteous Ones) who were assigned by God to fulfill a specific mission and purpose; to witness to the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. Their tools for doing so, in addition to what they taught, were signs and wonders.
I know this viewpoint could be questioned and disbelieved, but I think we should at least consider the possibility. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t do miracles today, and it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t use “ordinary Christians” to perform said-miracles today. It does mean however, that God does miracles “according to His will” and not our will. It also may mean, as we see in Rabbi Tauber’s tale, that when someone, a tzaddik, realizes he must perform the equivalent of “circumcising himself at the age of 99 years, he is worthy that G-d should reveal Himself to him.”
It’s an imperfect theory and it certainly could be wrong, but we’re an imperfect people and God, and His reasons for doing anything, are perfect. Whether we understand the nature of miracles happening in the past as opposed to happening the present or not, we can certainly acknowledge that miracles seem to occur in the world from time to time, at the will of God and for His own purposes, but we must not depend on them. Should God choose to intervene in our lives with a miracle, it is good, but if He chooses not to, it is good as well.
We depend, not on miracles to sustain us or to be a witness to the Messiah, but on our faith and trust in God. These are the stones with which God builds the path we walk upon as we journey each day, as we follow Him, reaching out to touch the hem of his garment, flourishing in the glow of His holiness, and then reflecting that light into the world. Perhaps that is miracle enough, for the light of God is His healing of the world.
It is a Divine kindness that His mercies are endless.
Another way to translate this verse is, “It is a Divine kindness that we are never finished.”
The Maggid of Koznitz was extremely frail and sickly as a child. It was not thought that he would survive to adulthood. Much of his life was spent sick in bed, and he was so weak that he was often unable to sit up to meet visitors. Still, he lived to an advanced age.
The Maggid once revealed the secret of his longevity. “I never allowed myself to be without an assignment or a task to perform,” he said. “People are taken from this world only when their missions here are completed. Whenever I was just about to finish one task, I would start another; hence, I could not be removed from this world if my assignment was not completed.”
Even from a purely physiological aspect, the Maggid’s concept is valid. Some think that the healthiest thing for us is rest and relaxation. Not so. In reality, unused muscles tend to atrophy, while muscles that are exercised and stimulated are strengthened.
The same principle applies to the entire person. If we constantly stimulate ourselves to achieve new goals, we avoid the apathy that leads to atrophy.
Today I shall…
try to take on a new spiritual goal, and stimulate myself to greater achievement in serving God and being of help to other people.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 16”
I’ll be away from the computer for the day and won’t be available to respond to or approve comments. If I am unable to attend to them before Shabbat begins, then I will do so on Saturday after sundown.