Rabbi Avi Shafran: The Nature Of Nature


editorial331.jpgIt is a strange and disorienting panorama that Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, ZATZAL, asks us to ponder: a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.

The thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground.   The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing – most astonishing of all – seeds of its own!

Notes Rav Dessler, there is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous.  We simply use the former word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and the latter one  for those we have not before experienced.  All there is, in the end, is Hashem’s will.
It is a thought a poet, R. W. Emerson put into the words: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…”

A thought, in fact, that subtly informed famed physicist Paul Davies’ recent op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote that “the very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

And it is a thought, too, that, according to Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has pertinence to Chanukah.

The supernatural nature of nature lies at the heart of the answer he suggests for one of the most famous questions in the canon of Jewish religious law, posed by the Beis Yosef: Why, if oil sufficient for one day was discovered in the Beis Hamikdosh when the Maccabees reclaimed it from Seleucid control, is Chanuka eight days long?  True, that is how long the candles burned, allowing the cohanim to prepare new, uncontaminated oil.  But was not one of those eight days simply the day for which the found oil sufficed, and thus not itself a miracle-day worthy of commemoration?

Suggests Rabbi Feinstein: Seven of Chanukah’s days commemorate the miracle that, in the time of the Maccabees, the menorah’s flames burned without oil.  The eighth commemorates the miracle of the fact that oil burns at all.

The suggestion pithily echoes the famous Gemara (Ta’anis, 25a), in which the daughter of the Rav Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before Shabbos that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the neiros Shabbos, and began to panic.  Rav Chanina, a man who vividly perceived Hasehm’s hand in all and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her.  “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar [as well] to burn.”

There is, in fact, one day of Chanukah’s eight that is set apart from the others, designated with a special appellation.  The final day of the holiday is known s “Zos Chanukah,” after the Krias HaTorah beginning “Zos chanukas hamizbe’ach” read in shul that day.

The sifrei nistar consider that day to be the final reverberation of the Yomim Noro’im marked many weeks earlier.  Although Rosh Hashana was the year’s day of judgment and Yom Kippur was the culmination of the days of teshuva, later “time-stones” of the period of Hashem’s judgment of our actions are cited as well.  One is Hoshana Rabba.  And the final one, according to the sources, is “Zos Chanukah.”

It would indeed seem to be a fitting day for thinking hard about the “supernature” in nature, the miraculous in the seemingly mundane.  For what is what we call a miracle if not a more-clear-than-usual manifestation of Hashem?  And what are the Yomim Noro’im if not a time when He is “close” to us, when Hashem-consciousness is at front and center?

And so, perhaps the final day of Chanukah presents us with a singular opportunity to ponder how, just as the ubiquity and predictability of nature can mislead us, allowing us to forget that all is, in truth, HaKodosh Boruch Hu’s will, so too can the weeks elapsed since the late summer Yomim Noro’im lull us into a state of unmindfulness regarding the import of our actions.

If so, the final night of Chanukah might be a particularly apt time to gaze at the eight flames leaking enlightenment into the world and, as we prepare to head into the dismal darkness of what some might consider a “G-d-forsaken winter,” know that, still and all, as always, “His glory fills the universe.”


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


  1. A friend of mine, a frum university professor, told me that a physics professor had given a lecture to his class. The physics professor said, the biggect problem we are facing in physics today is how to explain (I forget the word) without using the “G” word.

    There is an old saying that: “When scientists at last climb the final peak knowledge, they will be warmly greeted by the theologians that have been sitting there for millenia.” While I personally don’t need the “proof” that science endorses the view of Torah, I do smile every time that I read about a new scientific “discovery” that is stated in seferim hundreds and thousands of years old.

    Some examples for those who may need it are:

    Eating whole-grain breakfast cereals seven or more times per week was associated with a lower risk of heart failure, Gemara Baba Metzia 107: (Please do not email me that mara is not the heart, The point is Chazal knew that pas shacharis is healthy and science has caught up.)

    Sleeping less than 4 hours or more than 8 is unhealthy. Research shows that people that sleep 6-6.75 hours a night live longer than those who sleep more. -Reb Nachmon

    The body produces an enzyme that has something to do with the clotting of the blood. At birth it’s low then it peaks on the eigth day before stabilizing lower, making the 8th day the beat day from a clotting standpoint, to make a bris.

    Not drinking from another’s cup to avoid infection
    -Mes.Derech Eretz Rabbah