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The Nature of Miracles
Excerpt from Trust Me!
And he [Pharaoh] said to them, "May Hashem indeed be with you if I would let you and your children go! Be aware, [though,] that [the] evil [you intend to do] will turn against you." (Shemos 10:10)
The following is adapted from Shiurei Da'as by R. Yehudah Leib Bloch.
Commenting on this verse, Rashi quotes a Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Ki Sisa, 365) which explains that the word "evil" here refers to a particular star. Pharaoh was telling Moshe and Aharon, "Astrological calculations show a certain star rising to greet you in the desert. It is a sign of blood and slaughter."
What was this bloody sign that Pharaoh was referring to? When the Jewish People sinned with the golden calf and the Almighty wanted to destroy them, Moshe prayed (Shemos 32:12): "Why should Egypt say, 'He took them out with evil [referring to the star of that name which is a portent of blood and death]'?" Moshe was saying that if God were to destroy the Jewish nation, the Egyptians would say that Pharaoh's astrologers had been correct in foretelling a bitter end for Israel. We know that the Almighty accepted Moshe's supplication, as Rashi makes clear in the remainder of his explanation of Shemos 10:10: "Immediately, 'Hashem relented regarding the evil' [Shemos 32:14], and he changed the blood[shed] into the blood of the [mass] circumcision which took place under Yehoshua [after the Israelites crossed the Jordan into Eretz-Yisrael.]"
From what we have seen, it would appear that the star itself was the danger awaiting Israel. It was an astrological force that would bring bloodshed and death upon them. Moshe Rabbeinu successfully nullified this force through his prayer, and the Almighty transformed the blood that was linked to the star's power into the blood of circumcision.
This whole incident is very perplexing. Why was it necessary to switch the blood of evil with the blood of circumcision? Indeed, what is behind the whole concept of switching? If astrology truly revealed that death by bloodshed awaited Israel in the future, how could this be transformed into the blood of circumcision? Finally, if the Almighty wanted to save His children and annul the evil decree foreseen by the astrologers, why did He have to resort to transforming it into something positive? Can anything take place in Creation that is contrary to His will?! All this is cryptic, to say the least.
In order to answer these questions, let us first turn our attention to an unusual prayer which is found alongside the Priestly Blessing. As the Kohanim spread out their hands to bless us on festival days, we recite:
Master of the universe! I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamed a dream and I do not know its meaning. May it be Your will... that all my dreams regarding both myself and all of Israel be good ones.... If they are good, strengthen them, fortify them, and fulfill them, in me and in them, like the dreams of Yosef Ha-Tzaddik. But if they require healing, heal them, as Chizkiyahu, King of Yehudah, was healed from his illness; and as Miriam the Prophetess was cured of her tzara'as; and as Na'aman was cured of his tzara'as; and like the waters of Marah [which were sweetened] by Moshe Rabbeinu; and the waters of Jericho, [which were sweetened] by Elisha. And just as You transformed the wicked Bilam's curse into a blessing, so may You, transform all of my dreams - regarding myself and those of all Israel - for good. (Berachos 55b; Siddur)
Do any of us really contemplate the meaning of these words? We are asking for our dreams to be cured! Is a dream something concrete that can fall ill and require healing? It's true that a dream sometimes reveals what will happen to a person or to someone close to him. We can understand that offering a prayer might help to prevent the dream from materializing, because it arouses Hashem's mercy and prompts Him to reconsider and to annul the decree. However, what is this "cure" for dreams that we pray for?
Moreover, this prayer goes into great detail and indicates the manner in which we would like our dreams to be cured: "as Chizkiyahu, King of Yehudah...and as Miriam the Prophetess... and as Na'aman...and like the waters of Marah...and the waters of Jericho..." In effect, we are requesting that, just as Hashem cures illness, He should likewise cure our dreams.
If this was not enough, we then ask Him to transform the dream from bad to good. How can a dream be transformed? Logic would dictate that if we had a bad dream, we should ask to have it annulled and that we be granted goodness and blessing instead. But when we ask to have the dream altered from a curse to a blessing, it means that the dream itself should be transformed, and not that it disappear entirely and be replaced by something else. How is this possible?
Providence Will Not Make Any Changes in Nature
In order to address this perplexity, let us imagine someone falling off a boat into the sea. By natural means, the only way he can avoid drowning is by finding something to hold onto. Now, if the Almighty wants the person to live, He might cause his salvation to be prepared several years in advance. For example, He might cause a piece of wood to fall into the water decades earlier - that "just happens" to float by exactly when the person needs it. However, Providence will not effect any changes in the natural order (i.e., by causing the person to miraculously remain afloat for days on end without any aid) except in special circumstances when a visible miracle is needed.
The question is, why does the Almighty need to rely on natural means? He obviously has the ability to change the nature of man and of water so that the person shouldn't drown! We learn from this that Hashem has established fixed rules and boundaries for the realm of Creation. His supervision over the world follows an orderly and clearly defined system. All the causalities required for the world - whether for good or for bad - are to be found within this system, and there is no need to change it.
This is in spite of the fact that the Almighty renews Creation each day, and nothing exists in nature without the involvement of His will and constant support. He controls every aspect of nature and there is no other power besides Him. Nevertheless, Hashem laid the foundation of the earth with tremendous wisdom. From the very outset, He formed His Creation in a way that would lead to the fulfillment of certain goals, according to His design for the End of Days. Whatever is necessary to insure that His plan will come to fruition has already been arranged and put into proper order. The plan and all of its various aspects - the misfortunes and the remedies, the dangers and the rescues, the destruction and the repair - were established in a systematic and organized fashion from the beginning of Creation.
All that is necessary exists within the very order of nature, and there is no need to make any changes in the system. From the start, all of the paths leading to danger and to deliverance were put in place. If a person is drowning in the sea, his salvation lies in grabbing onto a floating plank of wood. If someone is standing on the roof of a burning building, he can be saved by a ladder or by having a rope thrown to him which he can tie to the roof and climb down. All these are the ways that Providence has been incorporated into nature: the paths of danger and the paths of salvation, and the possibilities for man to utilize them. When the Creator desires to rescue someone, these means are already in place, and He has no need to circumvent or change the normal laws of nature.
There Is More to Nature Than Meets the Eye
Man, however, is small-minded and shortsighted. We persist in thinking that nature is limited to what we see on a daily basis. Anything that is slightly beyond this - e.g., the spiritual powers present in Creation, such as the power to bless or to curse - does not appear to us to be a function of nature. Indeed, we generally refer to such things as being "supernatural." In truth, all of "nature" is a long chain that is part of the plan of Creation. Its origin lies in the will expressed by the Almighty when he created the world. It is supported by His bidding and exists under the dominion of His holy names.
Therefore, just as there are certain means that are employed in the lower elements of Creation (which really are connected to and have roots in the upper spheres), there are also spiritual powers that comprise an intrinsic part of Creation. Moreover, it is possible for an individual to access these powers through specific means. He can activate them and achieve tremendous results which have been ordered and implanted within the very fabric of Creation.
A Dream Can Reveal the Roots of the Future
With this understanding, we can explain the transformation of a dream. Dreams are not, as commonly thought, merely revelations about the future. Rather, a dream is the attainment of a certain recognition of the present. Things that happen in this world do not have their roots and beginnings in the causes and reasons we perceive. Rather, everything has its origins in the upper realms, which are the real roots of Creation. The potential for something may exist in those spheres long before it becomes actualized in this world, and the reality of this existence can be apprehended even before that element materializes on this plane. It cannot be detected with the physical senses, but it may be perceived along the fine spiritual plane that directly interfaces with the material realm - the world of dreams. As time progresses, this element takes on tangible form, until it finally becomes apparent to even the physical senses. Then, in some small measure, we can perceive it and recognize it.
Yet even after the event or the circumstance has finally reached a stage where we can perceive it, we still see only a minute part of its real existence. As long as the soul is enclothed in a material receptacle, it is impossible for it to see more than it is able to glimpse through tiny windows - the five senses. These five senses, all in their specific areas, are more refined and perceptive than the rest of the body, and through them we have a limited ability of perception. However, even what we see is not real existence. It is merely a glimpse through the lens of our senses, shaded according to the form and amount of their sensitivity.
Dreams - A Glimpse Beyond the Barrier
The limited perception mentioned above relates only to the waking state. During sleep, however, the soul becomes somewhat detached from its material garment and is not as totally enveloped by a physical covering as when awake. In this state, it can peer beyond the constraints imposed on it by the physical body and the domain of the senses. When this happens, it can perceive the existence of something before that element actually takes on a physical form. This kind of perception is of a different nature than that of the five senses, because they were not given the ability to perceive this realm of existence. We can now understand why dreams often seem so confusing and nonsensical. In general, we only interpret reality according to the information supplied by the five senses. We are unlearned concerning the processing of information that is supplied through a different medium. Moreover, even when we dream, we are not entirely cut off from our physical bodies. Therefore, our spiritual reception mixes with our material one. It becomes confused and is transformed into a physical concept that most closely approximates the spiritual image. This is why a special knowledge of interpretation is required to understand what one has seen and what the dream is about.
Premonition and Intuition
In truth, a person may occasionally have a premonition of the future even when he is awake, with his heart telling him that something is going to happen. We refer to this as "intuition." However, just like a dream, this is not true knowledge of the future, which only the prophets of God have been awarded. Rather, the event already exists in this world on some plane, but it does not yet have enough of a physical form for the senses to perceive it. Occasionally, the soul peers beyond the boundaries of the material and detects something of that metaphysical reality which exists above the domain of the senses. Having said this, we can now explain the following statement of Chazal (Berachos 55b): "A person is shown [in his dreams] only what he is thinking in his heart." (Normally we interpret this to mean that a person's dreams reflect whatever he has been thinking about. And while this is definitely true, perhaps we can say more.) Even without dreaming, the soul has some perception of things that exist above the realm of the senses. However, this perception is weak and the person doesn't recognize it. During sleep, when one's soul separates slightly from his corporeal being, the soul becomes more aware of this aspect of reality, and its recognition materializes into the images of a dream.
Healing a Dream
Now we are in a position to understand the concept of "healing" a dream. It turns out that what is seen in a dream is as real as Chizkiyahu's illness, as real as Miriam's and Na'aman's tzara'as, and as real as the bitter waters of Marah and Jericho. The only difference is that these things were concrete enough to be discerned by the senses, whereas dreams reflect a more intangible existence. However, even this intangible state can be cured if the Almighty so wills it, and He has no need to create something entirely new or to nullify the existing reality. Rather, just as there are natural means of curing every illnesss, there is also a cure for the problem pictured in the dream. Therefore, we ask Him to send us this cure. One of the means by which a bad dream is cured is by having it transformed from bad to good. As long as the reality represented by the dream has not coalesced into a physical existence that can be perceived by the five senses, it remains malleable enough to be transformed as it develops a more tangible form. This is so for the following reason: it is known that every bad thing contains some good elements. It is therefore possible to arrange the event's development so that the good elements have more influence than the bad ones. In that way, everything will be transformed from bad to good. An Omen of Blood
With the above in mind, we are now in a position to answer our original question. The evil star that Pharaoh saw as an astrological omen was a sign of blood and death that faced Israel. It was not merely a portent of the future. Rather, it signified something already in existence - something that was ready to take on a physical reality in the form of blood and death among the Jewish nation.
The stars and constellations are the means through which the Heavenly emanations descend from the upper worlds down to this lowly one. Through the knowledge of astrology, it is possible to recognize what is taking place in the upper realms. By observing the status of that star which portended evil, Pharaoh recognized a sign of blood and death hovering over Israel. According to the laws of astrology, this was more dangerous than the snakes and scorpions awaiting them in the desert. At the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt, they were protected by a wondrous Divine hashgachah that bore them on wings of eagles. Eventually, however, they would sin, and the hashgachah would be removed from them. At that time, the Children of Israel would face tremendous danger in the form of this destructive force which stood to annihilate them. This is because of a mechanism that is woven into the very fabric of Creation, whereby transgression activates forces in the upper worlds that cause a flow of punishment to descend from above. As long as the illness (sin) had not been cured, it remained a constant threat to the Children of Israel, despite the continual protection they reaped from Moshe's prayers. However, when the Almighty eventually transformed the blood of the evil star into the blood of circumcision, the illness was cured. Concerning this, Hashem says (Yehoshua 5:9): "Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from upon you." Through the laws by which these intangible realities develop and materialize, the evil itself was transformed into good. Instead of threatening evil and destruction to the nation of Israel, the omen of blood was transformed into the mitzvah of circumcision, which served to strengthen Hashem's covenant with the Jewish People. Their blood was now spilled only in a positive manner, to support and strengthen them in life, as it says in Yechezkel (16:6): "In your blood you shall live!"
A Dream and a Cow
This is from Yated Ne'eman, Hebrew edition, parashas Bo, 5758, pp. 12-13.
The following story isn't well known. Nor is it the sort of story that is usually told about the Rav of Brisk. Nevertheless, it was related by a reliable source, R. Aryeh Yosef Prager z"l, who served as the shochet of Brisk during R. Yehoshua Leib Diskin's tenure there. R. Prager was affiliated with the chassidic community of Brisk. A Torah scholar and a God-fearing individual, he often held halachic discussions with R. Yehoshua Leib. In R. Prager's comprehensive work Minchas Yosef, he testifies to the Brisker Rav's extensive knowledge of hilchos shechitah.
R. Prager's brother was the son-in-law of R. Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, the Rabbi of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, his brother passed away without leaving any children behind. As a result, R. Prager undertook the journey from Europe to Jerusalem so that his sister-in-law could perform the chalitzah ceremony, which would free her to remarry.
His visit to Jerusalem took place in 5651 (1890-91), several years after R. Yehoshua Leib had already settled in the Holy City. As a side benefit of his journey, R. Prager looked forward to meeting with R. Diskin - his rav and the rav of the whole generation. Jerusalem at that time was a city full of Torah and yiras Shamayim. However, R. Yehoshua Leib was the gem that adorned her crown, and he lit up the entire land with the light of his Torah.
R. Diskin was delighted to see his friend from the "old country." Just as they had done so many times in Brisk, the two men engaged in a halachic discussion. In the course of their conversation, R. Diskin related a very interesting episode that occurred when he served as the Rabbi of Kovno:
One of the Jewish residents of the city came to the Rav's house seeking his counsel. This man's father had died within the past year. He, the son, had experienced a frightening dream the previous night, and he needed the Rav's advice. It seemed that his father had appeared to him and told him that he had been reincarnated in the form of a black bull. The animal belonged to a gentile who lived at the outskirts of a village about thirty miles from Kovno. The father requested that his son buy the bull, adding that it would cost 40 rubles. Afterwards, he was to bring the animal to the slaughterhouse in Kovno, have it ritually slaughtered, and distribute its meat among upright Jews. When the meat was eaten by such people, the father's soul would achieve the rectification (tikkun) it required.
There was one more detail to the story: the father assured his son that the bull would go with him without any resistance. As the story eventually unfolded, this point would gain much significance.
"I berated him," related R. Diskin, "and asked if his father had brought him the money to buy the bull. I concluded the conversation by reminding him that according to Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 68:12) dreams are meaningless."
The man returned to the Rav's house the next day, shaken and agitated. He related that his father had visited him again the previous night and repeated his request. R. Yehoshua Leib, who regarded every statement made by Chazal with the utmost gravity, did not retract his opinion: "Chazal tell us that dreams mean nothing!" He concluded by reiterating his question of the day before: "Did your father provide you with the necessary amount of money?"
R. Yehoshua Leib was deeply pained that he had to take such an unyielding stance against the unfortunate man and appear so unfeeling. However, he really had this person's best interests at heart. He knew that the man lived on the edge of poverty. He only made two or three rubles a week selling wheat and hides at the local market - a sum that barely sufficed to cover his family's minimal expenses. Forty rubles was almost an astronomical amount of money, and there was no realistic way he could acquire such a sum. Therefore, the Rav refused to change his mind even after the man returned a third and a fourth time.
The turning point came when the father changed his tactics and appeared to his son while he was wide awake. It happened about a week or so after the first dream. One afternoon, the man missed Minchah in the shul where he usually davened. And as he was in the first year after his father's passing, he was particularly anxious to find a minyan so that he could say Kaddish. His feet led him to the local chassidic shul, and he went to the front of the synagogue in order to lead the service. As he was standing before the large congregation, he suddenly fell into a faint.
Even after the congregants managed to revive him, his face was ashen with fear. His whole world had collapsed, and he felt himself caught between the proverbial hammer and anvil. He clearly felt the force of R. Diskin's position. However, now things were different. Whereas his dream might be explained as a flight of fancy, this time his father had appeared to him while he was awake! That reality was just as forceful as anything the Rav had said.
He told his distressing story to the crowd of men around him - his dreams, the Rav's response, and this latest incident. In his father's unrelenting demand to have his request fulfilled, he had even threatened his son's life!
Once again, the hapless son made his way to the Rav's house, this time accompanied by two wealthy members of the chassidic community. At first, the two men remained in the waiting room while the man went in to speak to the Rav. But after the man told the Rav what had happened in the shul, these two companions came in and verified the story.
R. Yehoshua Leib, however, stuck to his position: "And who is going to pay for this bull?"
"We will pay for it out of our own pockets," the two men replied without hesitation.
Still, the Rav was not persuaded. "But who is going to take care of this man's family while he's gone? The sale may take a while to finalize, and the man may well have to go back to the Gentile several times. This whole thing could take weeks!"
"We are prepared to donate an additional six rubles to cover his family's living expenses," was their firm response.
With all the financial barriers removed, R. Yehoshua Leib finally agreed that the man carry out his father's request. However, he had one stipulation: it was essential that the son carry out his mission without deviating from the six characteristics that defined it. These six were: a black bull; owned by a Gentile named Stanislav; the Gentile lived at the outskirts of such and such a town; the town was 30 miles from Kovno; 40 rubles; the bull would come willingly. "Otherwise," he told the man, "you have no right to waste other people's money."
Heartened by R. Diskin's acquiescence, the man set out on his journey. When he neared his destination, he stopped at a Jewish inn that was situated at the edge of the village. He inquired of the owner if he knew of a Stanislav who lived nearby. The innkeeper responded in the affirmative, adding that there was a Stanislav living at the outskirts of the town. The guest then asked, "Does he have a black bull which he is interested in selling?"
"You already seem to know everything," replied the innkeeper, "so why are you asking me?" Perhaps it was fear of the unknown that prompted him to make the innkeeper a partner to his secret. In any event, the son couldn't contain himself any longer, and he divulged the entire story to his fellow Jew.
"Such an amazing episode is going to take place so close by?!" thought the incredulous innkeeper to himself. "I'd like to go along with you and see how everything works out," he said.
Together, the two men made their way to the Gentile's house.
There was quite a bit of bargaining before the sale was finally completed. When the man first offered to buy the animal, the Gentile asked for an outrageous sum. However, the buyer did not forget the Rav's warning, and he stuck to the price that was quoted in the dream. "Forty rubles and not a kopek more," he exclaimed.
On the other hand, the farmer wasn't quick to give in either. "Someone else offered me 60 rubles and I refused to sell it for such a paltry amount," he shot back in response. Eventually, however, the Gentile agreed to the Jew's price. The man counted out the 40 rubles and handed the money over to the farmer.
Once the Gentile had the money in his hand, he warned the new owner about the problems he would encounter in transporting the bull. "This is a wild animal that attacks anyone who tries to get near him. Others who considered purchasing him planned to buy other livestock in the area and bring an expert who knows how to handle animals. How are you planning to take care of it?"
"That's my problem," answered the Jew confidently. He then took out a small length of rope, tied one end around the bull's horns, and led the docile animal down the road. The Gentile just stared, his mouth agape at the unbelievable sight before him. The innkeeper accompanied the man on his way back to Kovno, wanting to see for himself how the rest of the story would unfold.
News traveled fast about the "wonder bull." Throngs of people gathered in the center of the Kovno marketplace, whence the bull was to make its final passage to the slaughterhouse. The strange story of the dream piqued the interest of the populace, and they wanted to see the fabulous animal with their own eyes. "Could it really be true?" they wondered excitedly among themselves. Even R. Yehoshua Leib raised his eyes from the book he was studying and asked his Rebbetzin what all the commotion was about.
The slaughtered bull was inspected within and without and declared glatt kosher. The meat was also sent to poor Torah scholars. Among the recipients was R. Yehoshua Leib Diskin.
Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!
© Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Yeshiva Shaare Chaim.
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop ? Lakewood).
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