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The Purpose of Signs and Miracles According to the Rambam

  • Rav Ezra Bick



In his comments on the commandment of tefillin (Shemot 13:16), the Ramban offers a general theory of "signs" in Judaism, and, inter alia, a summary of the purpose of signs and mitzvot in general. In fact, this is a summary of the purpose of human life and of creation. The two subjects – the meaning of "signs" and the purpose of creation – are closely intertwined in the Ramban, as we shall see.


            The Ramban lists a number of theological mistakes common in the world: those who do not believe in the existence of God, those who do not believe in His omniscience, and those who do not accept His omnipotence or His providence. The answer to these heresies, claims the Ramban, is the occurrence of miracles. The miracle, an exception to the "way of the world and its nature," disproves publicly those false beliefs, for it proves that the world has a "creator-God, knowing, supervising, and capable." The Ramban makes the sweeping statement that the occurrence of a miracle, together with its being predicted in advance by a prophet (demonstrating the truth of prophecy), serves to "establish the entirety of the Torah."


            However, there is a problem. God will not perform miracles in every generation. The Ramban does not explicitly explain why not, but the expression he uses – "God will not perform a sign and wonder in every generation in the eyes of every evildoer and heretic" – implies that it is somehow improper, an affront to the dignity of God for His power to be displayed for the unworthy. (In his derashaTorat Hashem Temima” [p.150], he writes, "The great public miracles which can confound the weak in faith are not performed for every generation, for the generations are not worthy of that, or because there is no need for it to be performed.") In any event, the outcome is that miracles are a necessary part of the world, in order to demonstrate God's power and presence, but also a necessarily absent aspect of the world, in light of the unworthiness of humanity.


The solution to the absence of miracles, according to the Ramban, is the "sign." We are commanded to make signs, remembrances, of that which "we" saw with our eyes, so that our children and all future generations, "to the end of time," should have the experience of the miracle – specifically, the miracles that accompanied the exodus from Egypt.


            In order to fully appreciate the significance of "signs," we have to examine the importance the Ramban grants to the message of the "signs." Aside from the fact that error in these matters of theology is common, why is this area of mitzvot so central? The Ramban points out that a whole slew of mitzvot are defined in the Torah as being "in remembrance of the exodus," and that some of them are strengthened in a drastic manner, carrying the punishment of "karet" for non-fulfillment. In answering our question, the Ramban gives a short statement of the central importance of proper belief concerning God.


Therefore, (the Sages) said: Be as careful with a minor mitzva as with a major one, for all are very dear and beloved. For through them a man does every hour confess (or give thanks) to his God. And the purpose of all the mitzvot is that we should believe in our God and acknowledge to Him that He has created us. And that is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no explanation of creation, and the most high God has no desire in His creatures other than that man know and acknowledge to his God that He has created him.


            The purpose of creation and the fulfillment of human potential is that Man know God and declare (lehodot - to acknowledge, confess, and also, to thank) that God is his creator.


            This may appear to resemble the goal of human existence defined by the Rambam (Maimonides) to know God. But there is a crucial difference, highlighted by the word "created" in the Ramban's definition. Although the Ramban uses the word "believe" (na'amin) at the beginning of his definition, he is not really interested in intellectual belief in God's existence, as the Rambam is. This is even clearer in the second formulation – "that man know and acknowledge/thank his God that He has created him." Notice – not that man know God, but that he know and acknowledge that God is his creator. Acknowledging God as one's creator is acknowledging a relationship, one based on the total dependency of man on God.


The Rambam, as is well-known, strenuously avoided introducing creation into the knowledge of God. Providence (hashgacha) is not an element in the intellectual knowledge of God. The end-result of the knowledge of the Rambam and the acknowledgement of the Ramban is strikingly different. Through knowledge of God, one achieves, according to the Rambam, unity with God; according to the Ramban, proper knowledge and acknowledgement leads to a feeling of utter dependence. The ultimate knowledge necessary for man, according to the Ramban, is that he derives from God and is totally in God's hands, and this knowledge is, in fact, the goal of existence. It is what God created man for.


            This difference may be illustrated by the different attitudes of the Ramban and the Rambam to miracles. The Rambam, as is well-known, had an ambiguous attitude to miracles. In terms of the knowledge of God, miracles were an impediment, since knowledge of God derived from the contemplation of the laws of nature, which were themselves an expression of the divine wisdom. A miracle, even if it were important for the immediate effect it would have in history, obscures the laws of nature, and therefore cannot be a subject of divine contemplation. Knowing God, the ultimate goal of human existence according to the Rambam, relates to God's wisdom, which is manifest in the rational laws of nature.


            For the Ramban, on the other hand, the miracle is the chief vehicle for the knowledge of God that he is aiming at. Why? Because acknowledgement of God, the ultimate goal of human existence according to the Ramban, relates to God's power, not to His wisdom. In other words, the religious man, especially one who lives a life of mitzvot, lives in a world where God is manifested by His actions, by His supremacy over nature, where one feels and experiences the fact that He is the Creator of everything, and especially of man himself.


            We now have the key to understanding the special nature of mitzvot that are "signs" according to the Ramban. They are not merely reminders of facts that one is likely to forget. After all, despite the Ramban's introductory history, where he shows that many nations have adopted faulty understandings of the nature of God and His relationship with the world, the Jews presumably have a true tradition concerning those matters. The opening chapters of the Torah spell out explicitly that God is creator; why then is there a need for constant "reminders" and "signs" of that fact, through the agency of miracles?


The answer is that we are not seeking intellectual apprehension but rather existential acknowledgement. Man's relationship with God takes place in a world where God's absolute power and beneficent providence is evident and manifest to the religious consciousness. The "signs" are not mere reminders, but living expressions of the miracles they represent. A person who has tefillin on his arm, a mezuza on his door, who celebrates Pesach and Sukkot, who twice daily verbalizes the exodus, and many other mitzvot which can be categorized as signs or remembrances, is facing the miraculous all-encompassing power of God in his daily life. He is confronting God, and his life is one of "knowing and acknowledging to his God that He has created him."


            This point, the priority of the acknowledgement of God's creative power over the knowledge of His metaphysical existence, is made explicit by the Ramban in a short reference in the middle of his comments on tefillin. When listing the different "signs," he mentions that we are commanded to "mention (the exodus from Egypt) with our mouths morning and evening, as (the Sages) said, 'Emet ve-yatziv is de-oraita (Biblically mandated).'" The Ramban here is ruling that there is a de-oraita obligation to mention the exodus twice-daily, and this is accomplished by reciting the prayer Emet ve-Yatziv after the Shema. The Ramban here is not only claiming that there is a daily obligation to remember the exodus (i.e., God's miraculous power), but also hinting at the relative value of this commandment to the obligation to believe in God and His unity. The latter is what we normally associate with the mitzva of Keriat Shema, and all of us know how important a mitzva that is. The Ramban, however – and for this one needs to examine his opinion in his commentary to Masekhet Berakhot – believes that the recitation of Emet ve-Yatziv is more important than the recitation of Keriat Shema. Without going into the intricacies of the Talmudic discussion, we need only examine the parallel passage in Derashat Torat Hashem Temima (p.150). There the Ramban states explicitly, "To mention it with our mouths every day, as (the Sages) said in Berakhot, 'Keriat Shema is de-rabannan (a rabbinic ordinance); Emet ve-Yatziv is de-oraita.'" The Ramban is explicitly stating his belief that remembering the exodus is more important than the classic expression of faith, the Shema, which the Rambam, not surprisingly, lists as a Biblical commandment.


The Ramban concludes his exposition of the purpose of Man (which is the need to recognize that God is the Creator of all) with an explanation of a particular halakhic practice.


The reason for the raising of one's voice during prayer, and  the reason for synagogues, and the merit of public prayer is this – that people should have a place where they can congregate and thank (acknowledge) God who has created them and brought them into existence, and they will publicize this and declare before Him, 'We are your creatures.' This is the meaning of what (the Sages) said, "'They called to God mightily' – from here we learn that prayer must be out loud; for the brazen overcome the meek."


            This point is sufficiently important for the Ramban to repeat it in Torat Hashem Temima. I think the Ramban's point is as follows. If prayer were mainly a means of our expression, there would be no need to pray out loud, nor to pray with others. God can hear the single lonely soul as easily as the great mass of people, perhaps even better. But since the purpose of existence is to acknowledge God's power as Creator, this is expressed as prayer, where we declare that we are God's creatures. This is an even stronger expression of my point above. Knowledge of God in the Ramban is not inner apprehension, but declaration and acknowledgement. Here there is a further step – true acknowledgement should be public, out loud, in order that it be more authentic and meaningful. It is clear that the purpose of creation, the acknowledgement of God, is not a moral obligation of man, but is a part of the status of the created world. The world should reflect the power of God, which is accomplished in the mouths of men.


We have seen that the Ramban viewed miracles as the basis for the Jewish belief in God as creator and all-powerful provider. Let us now examine the end of that same section of the Commentary to the Torah, where the Ramban explicates his theory of miracles.


From the great and public miracles, one recognizes the hidden miracles, which are the foundation of the entire Torah, for one has no part in the Torah of Moshe our teacher unless one believes that all our things and occurrences are all miracles and have no nature or the way of the world in them, whether communally or individually; rather, [one must believe that] if he fulfills the mitzvot, his reward will bring him success, and if he transgresses them, his punishment will cut him off – everything by the decree of the Most High.


In this very famous section, the Ramban distinguishes between two types of miracles, the "great, public" miracles, and the "hidden" miracles. The first category includes the miracles of the exodus, the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. The second category includes every other occurrence that affects the believer, those usually categorized as "natural," as parts of nature subject to the laws of nature. The important point in the Ramban is that there is, in fact, no difference at all between the two on the metaphysical level. Both have the same meaning, namely, that God – and not a law of nature – is directly responsible for whatever occurred. The only difference is psychological: the first is psychologically imposing, forcing its meaning on the observer. The second can, and usually will, be interpreted – incorrectly – as a natural occurrence, whose cause is the chain of natural causation we, today, call science.


The relationship between the two types of miracles is educationally causative. The existence of the first, and man's recognition of what it teaches about God, leads to the recognition of the second and its implied meaning – that everything is to be viewed as a miracle, a direct and personal intervention of God in the life of the believer.


It is important to notice that the Ramban is not expressing a metaphysical principle here. He is not saying that "nature" does not exist, that it is an illusion. He is not rejecting Maimonidean (and Aristotelian) physics, which grants to each created thing a particular nature, whose laws it obeys. The Ramban is first of all speaking about the Jewish people, and not about creation in general. Secondly, he is stating that one must learn to view the world as part of a miraculous dialogue between oneself and God, but not that in fact one merits this constant and total providence all the time.


            The two points are interrelated. If the Ramban thought that, metaphysically, everything that takes place in the world is the result of a direct miraculous Divine cause, there would be no way to distinguish between Jews and the rest of the world, nor to allow even the possibility that some occurrences that affect Jews were in fact the result of natural law.


We will come back to a deeper understanding of what the Ramban means shortly. But we can already draw certain immediate conclusions, especially in light of the first part of this comment of the Ramban. The Ramban places the belief that everything that affects me comes directly from God as a central belief of Judaism. The extraordinary statement that one who does not share this belief has "no share in the Torah of Moshe" does not leave a great deal of room for maneuver. What is so important about this way of viewing reality?


We have already seen that the Ramban’s basic religious attitude is the acknowledgement of God's creative power. The Ramban here greatly increases the scope of that attitude. It is not a mere belief, nor is it an acknowledgment of a historical relationship. It is a basic and constant orientation. It would be fair to say that according to the Ramban, it is what defines the relationship of the religious individual with God. There is no other proper attitude towards God, and not having this in the forefront of one's consciousness is equivalent to losing one's relationship with God altogether.


The Ramban has drawn a three-part path between the believer and God:

a) the mitzva-remembrance, which points to the exodus from Egypt;

b) the great public miracles of the exodus, which point to "hidden miracles;"

c) the view of everyday life as the hand of God.


The miracle is not merely the key to true belief; it is the content of true belief. In fact, I know of no other major thinker in Judaism who places such a great emphasis on the category of the miracle. Of course, the Ramban by miracle does not mean the wondrous or the astonishing. That would be merely a psychological aid in perceiving the true nature of the miracle, which pervades reality for the believer. The miraculous means the hand of God, present and close to the believer. The Torah – again, I repeat, the Torah and not reality itself – is a system which brings God into close proximity with the adherent, and places the adherent directly in God's hand. The purpose of creation is the recognition and acknowledgement by man of his relationship with the omnipotent Creator; therefore, for a Torah adherent to not recognize the omnipresent hand of God hovering over his every occurrence would be for him to miss the central point of Torah existence. In the Ramban's words, he would have no part in the Torah of Moshe.


In order to understand this fully, we must have recourse to the kabbalistic framework which lies behind the scenes of the Ramban's formulation. Skipping over the details, which are basically unknown, the Ramban believes that everything in reality is directly tied to different levels of emanations of God, the sefirot. The natural world and the system of natural laws which so impressed the Aristotelians, is itself a manifestation of a particular sefira of God. The acknowledgement of God's creative power is, on a deeper level, an acknowledgement of the connection between yourself and the sefirot. If we were subject to the blind operation of natural law, that would also be a connection with God, but on a much lower level of the sefirot. The key here is Torah. The Torah itself is a reflection of a higher sefira, and the people of the Torah, who live according to its precepts, are therefore connected to a higher level of the sefirot. On a practical level, that difference is expressed in the difference between being subject to nature, or being in the hands of God's ethical decisions. Is what happens to me a result of my interaction with the laws of nature or my interaction with the laws of the Torah? To the extent that I am existing on the level of Torah, I am expressing a higher level of existence corresponding to a higher sefira, and, like all of existence, it is imperative to recognize and acknowledge that level of existence, i.e., that level of dependence on God's creative power.


(This corresponds to a different famous distinction in the Ramban. I have already pointed out that the Ramban is speaking here only of the Jewish people. The Ramban in several places clams that the rest of the world is run by angels, i.e., through agency, but that the Jews are under the direct providence of God. See, for example, his comments to Bereishit 28:12.)


This explains, I believe, the contradiction found in the Ramban concerning this point. Although in the section we are examining, the Ramban is quite clear and unequivocal that "all our occurrences are all miracles, and have no nature in them at all," in his commentary to Iyov (36:7) he expresses himself in much more moderate tones. The Ramban there explicitly states that most people are subject to nature and accidents, and should therefore take the proper precautions, since they are not worthy of miracles. Only the perfectly pious are elevated above the accidents of the natural world. Indeed, the Ramban in our section never implied that one should ignore the natural world and rely on miracles. On the contrary, the section began with the assertion that public miracles are rare because the generations are not worthy. Despite the Ramban's equation of public miracles and secret ones, he does distinguish between them on the basis of their metaphysical status. In fact, the Ramban believes that secret miracles – the course of what appears to be nature – derive from the sefira of malkhut, majesty, which is the lowest of the sefirot, whereas public miracles derive from the sefira of tiferet, the third (of seven). I think the answer is that the Ramban, as I stated, is not asserting a metaphysical principle that nature does not exist, but rather a Torah principle, that Torah can elevate us above nature. The acknowledgement that everything is the actions of God, and the reality that everything is God's direct miraculous action, are in fact interwoven. The Torah gives you the ability to live in the hands of God by acknowledging that that is so. One who psychologically lives in the hands of God is in reality connected to the higher sefira which is expressed in a greater degree of Divine presence, and manifested by a greater degree of the miraculous.         


Our section is indeed written in a relatively extreme and absolute manner, because it is expressing a principle. The purpose of creation is that man acknowledge the power of God. Acknowledgment – and here we are introducing the Kabbala into our understanding – is also the ground for bringing God in reality into our existence, and hence it elevates man's status in regards to providence and the miraculous. To the extent that you view the natural world as your home, you are indeed putting yourself outside the world of Torah, for the purpose of man is to recognize the creative power of God over him.


            Practically speaking, I think the Ramban is saying that perfect tzaddikim are protected by public overt miracles, and the rest of the Jewish nation by private secret ones. The nature of the secret miracles, though, is not necessarily protective – rather, "if he fulfills mitzvot, his reward will bring him success, and if he transgresses them, his punishment will cut him off."             The idea that I have just hinted at, that man's actions and beliefs directly affect the nature of the connection of God to the world and the operation of the sefirot, is probably the most important kabbalistic idea found in the Ramban.


            On a non-kabbalistic and not particularly philosophic level, what is the practical difference between the attitude of the Ramban to God's presence in the world and that of the Rambam, who sees the natural world as a Divine creation of God's wisdom? We have already seen in the Ramban to Iyov that the average man should not ignore practical considerations of nature and rely on God's miraculous intervention. But there is a more basic difference, I think. The Ramban strives to remove the psychological barrier between Man and God. For the Ramban, a religious personality is expressed by the feeling of being in God's hands. Knowing that God has created a wonderful and brilliantly designed environment for me to live in, as the Rambam believes, is for the Ramban not a source of religious awareness precisely because it interposes a barrier between Man and God. The Ramban insists on the immediacy of the religious experience, and it is in that light that we should understand the signs, the mitzvot which I surround myself so that the awareness of God's power and presence be all-encompassing and ever-present. The main difference between the religious personality of the Ramban and that of the Rambam is psychological, how you feel about the relationship with God, rather than metaphysical (but of course, as we saw above, psychology – awareness and acknowledgement – is the basis for God's real presence in the world and the goal of creation). For the Ramban, though, this different mentality is crucial in defining the religious individual and ultimately his relationship with God.