I recall a particular afternoon some years ago, in the early 1960s, when thirty Jewish scientists from various Eastern universities attended one of the Rebbe’s Shabbat afternoon gatherings (called farbrengens.) The scientists sat among the Chassidim and listened while the Rebbe spoke in Yiddish, which they did’nt understand. During the break for singing, one of the Chassidim gave them a synopsis in English of what the Rebbe said. Even in English it didn’t mean much to them.
When the Rebbe resumed the discourse, he dedicated the next portion of his talk to the visitors, and for the next forty minutes he described the mystical Chassidic view of the universe. During the next break, the Chassid again translated the Rebbe’s words; “The Rebbe said that all matter is behavior, and we can see this behavior by observing nature closely”.
“Did he really say that?” one scientist asked. “Physics also defines nature as “observable behavior patterns.” The scientists who had come as curios observers began to wonder if the mystical and physical are compatible after all. Certainly, in the Rebbe’s world, the two are one. Of course, there are significant differences between the scientists’ view and Chassidus’ view. The scientist saw a mechanical universe. The Rebbe saw a warm, responsive universe with a beating heart.
Chassidus’ view of creation sheds new light on the phenomenon of miracles. The Rebbe pointed out that the miraculous events described in Torah are G-d doing what He always does, only varying the routine.
For instance, G-d usually tells water to flow downward, an instruction so familiar that we call it natural law. Then one day, somewhere in the Sinai, G-d told water to stand still: The water behaved like a wall to their right and to their left. This instruction happens so infrequently that some people call it a violation of natural law, and others call it a miracle. In truth, both standing still and running downward are miracles.
The Talmud tells the story of the sage, Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, who arrived home one Friday evening, just as the sun was setting. As always on Fridays, he found the table set and his daughter preparing to light the Shabbat light. But something was amiss.
“Why do you look so unhappy?” he asked.
She answered that she had accidentally added vinegar to the oil in the Shabbat lights. “The vinegar will surely extinguish the flames,” she said.
“He who tells oil to burn will tell vinegar to burn” her father answered.
That Shabbat evening, vinegar burned.
Was it a miracle? We assume that oil burns because of its chemical properties, meaning, “I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.” Although we can see oil burning, there is no reason that oil must burn. The Rebbe, a mystic as well as a man of science, said that oil burns because G-d tells it to.
The same is true of all natural laws. We know that aspirin relieves a headache and we may even know how it does the job. Yet we’ll never know why. The Healer of all flesh instructs aspirin to subdue pain, usually. And usually, He tells water to flow downward and oil to burn. It’s all the same to them.