Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

This haftara is very difficult to understand and to analyze because it deals in supernatural matters that are unfamiliar to us. Furthermore, and not coincidentally, much of the narrative of our haftara was subsequently appropriated and adapted by the followers of a certain rabbi from Nazareth.

Previously in this column we discussed the problematic nature of miraculous gifts and why the Shunamite woman was reluctant to accept one (as it turned out, for good reason!) from Elisha. We also saw how Elisha’s disciple Gechazi was the one who pushed him to perform public miracles, and how Gechazi is later exposed as one of the most wicked people who ever lived. (Sota 47a, Sanhedrin 107b). Let us dig deeper today into this more general idea – that the truly G-d-fearing do not seek miraculous salvation.

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A story is told in the Gemara (Shabbat 53b) of a man whose wife died, leaving him an infant son. The man was too poor to afford a wet nurse to feed his baby, so he miraculously grew breasts and nursed the baby himself. R’ Yosef said what a tzaddik this man was to have such a miracle performed for his sake. But Abaye said what a terrible person he must have been to have the laws of nature overturned just for him.

The commentary Ben Yehoyada, by the Ben Ish Chai, explains this parable in detail. If Hashem wanted to truly help this man, then he would have provided him with the means to support his family. Instead we see that although the guiltless baby was supported, it came about in a way that was a little embarrassing to the father. But Abaye’s point seems more to stress the importance of conforming to the laws of nature, created for the good of all of humanity. Rav Kook develops this idea in his commentary on the siddur, Olat Reaya. It is worthwhile to translate this passage here at length:

The purpose of prayer is to bring all of the Torah and the Divine Service, the wisdom and the acts, into a natural context. The proper spiritual stance is always in the moment – meaning living and experiencing every moment – as if we are suckling our earthly existence from its Divine source… Thus when the natural world falls short of the measure and it is necessary for miracles to sustain it, we consider this to be a bother to the heavenly realms and a decadence that is seen in the alteration of the order of Creation. [R’ Kook quotes here our Gemara.] Therefore we always pray for the preservation of the natural world in such a way that life in the physical world will have a foundation in us (in our merit) and that we can concentrate on living and experiencing every moment.

The Gemara in Shabbat continues along these same lines. R’ Yosef learns from this episode that it is so difficult for people to make a living that Hashem occasionally has to perform miracles just to feed the righteous. But he is again corrected, this time by R’ Nachman. There was never anybody so righteous that Hashem caused edible grains to grow for him directly in his place – that he didn’t have to work to bring them forth. In other words, no matter how much a person devotes himself to serving Hashem and sanctifies his person and his time to the Torah, it is still necessary for him to find a way to earn a living.

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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He has written on Israeli art, music, and spirituality and is working to reawaken interest in medieval Jewish mysticism. He can be reached at avraham@thegeula.com.