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February 13, 2014

Parashat Beshalah
Rabbi Len Levin

Miracles, Creation, Evolution
I am writing this on the eve of a vacation trip to the Galapagos. By the time you read this, I will have been there and be on my way back home.
I am in a feverish sense of anticipation. When Charles Darwin, as a young man, visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835, his observation of the variation of related species from one island to the next sparked his imagination to conceive of his theory of evolution of the species through natural selection. I hope to recapture some of his thrill of discovery, and pray that the encounter may lead me to some new insights of my own.
The rabbis of the Talmudic period were no strangers to the issues that science poses for religion. The Stoic philosophy that was popular among the educated classes of the Roman period postulated a regular natural order that governed all events. How, then, were miraculous occurrences like the splitting of the Red (or Reed) Sea, crucial to the Israelites’ redemption from Israel, possible?
“God enacted a condition with the Sea, at the time of creation, that it should split upon the arrival of the Israelites.” (Genesis Rabbah, 5:5) The potential for miracles is built into the fabric of the universe at the time of creation. What appears to us as miracles is a manifestation of the underlying regular principles governing existence, when brought to bear on a specific, unique configuration of events in history.
The same perspective may be turned on the very question of the origin of life that concerned Darwin and that is still the subject of debate and discussion in our intellectual culture. The more we learn about the structure and history of the universe, the more we are amazed that its underlying physical constants seem fine-tuned to make possible the eventual emergence of intelligent life. Life is still the greatest miracle of all. Yet that miracle seems to have been built into the fabric of the universe at the time of creation.
If the rabbis had foreseen Darwin’s discovery, they might have given their midrash another twist. It was a miracle that a human being should stumble on the secret of life. It was fortuitous that he should have come to the Galapagos to direct his consideration to the variation of species that was key to his theory. The Galapagos Islands are themselves a marvel of nature in another respect; they are the product of a continuous sub-oceanic volcanic flow, producing a series of islands over millions of years. Yet who knows, but that all these marvelous events, including Darwin’s marvelous discovery, were all implicit in the original plan of creation!
As we read further in our portion, we find that the Israelites’ sense of wonder at their miraculous redemption soon gave way to grumbling and despair. They trudged through the wilderness and went for days without water. Then when they discovered water, it was bitter. But God showed Moses a tree that could sweeten the water (another clear example of redemption through natural means). God promised that if the Israelites would obey God’s injunctions faithfully, then “I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.” (Exodus 15:26)
There is a puzzling reference to this passage in Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1). Rabbi Akiva says that whoever whispers the last-mentioned verse as an incantation over a wound loses his portion in the World to Come. It seems to me that Rabbi Akiva was protesting against the packaging of the moment of wonder into a static remedy that we can apply automatically to fix all our ills. Medicine is a holy craft, and it uses human knowledge of the mysteries of life to heal us from the ills to which our mortal frames are subject. Such a task should be practiced with reverence for the continuing mystery of what life is all about.
The narrative continues to the telling of the manna by which the Israelites were fed in the wilderness. A strange substance came down overnight, “a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.” (Exodus 16:14) The Israelites did not know what it was, so they asked, “Man hu?” “What is it?” – and so this strange edible substance came to be called “man” (manna).
I like to imagine that the Polynesians, making their way eastward across the Pacific Ocean, were rewarded with their efforts with an unfamiliar fish, and like the Israelites, they asked, “Mah hiMah hi?” (What is it? What is it?) – and so the fish was called “Mahi mahi.”
Science is always expanding our knowledge, answering many of the questions we have about the substance and natural history of the world we live in. But it should never rob us of our sense of mystery, which leads us to God.
Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.