Purim: The nature of miracles

Why did G-d treat Haman’s threat differently from his grandfather’s threat?

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Judaism Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Haman wasn’t the first villain in his family. He came from an illustrious line of Jew haters. He was a descendant of the infamous Amalek, who was the first to advise Pharaoh to enslave the Jews and was the first to make war against the Jews after the exodus.

The Torah describes the dramatic war that Amalek waged against the Jews. It came at a time when all nations feared the Jews. The fearsome Egyptians had been brought to their knees by the ten plagues. The Jews left Egypt without opposition in an unprecedented mass exodus. But although Egypt was down, it was not yet out. Only seven days later, the Egyptian army chased down the Jews and cornered them at the Reed Sea. Once again, the Egyptian army met a resounding defeat at the hands of G-d. As they attempted to flee, the Egyptian troops were heard crying, “let us flee, for G-d is fighting the war on behalf of Israel.

Alas, not a single Egyptian troop survived. Except for Pharaoh, who was spared so that he might tell the Egyptians about G-d’s greatness, every last soldier drowned in the sea. Pharaoh did his job admirably. He returned to Egypt, telling one and all about the mighty G-d of the Jews.

The nations trembled upon hearing this shocking news. This was the Egyptian Pharaoh, the world superpower whose word swayed governments and intimidated kings. Yet the powerful Pharaoh was powerless against the Jewish G-d. No one would dare attack the Jews after this event.

But there was one nation, who could not stand idly by while the nations revered the Jews. It had been on his advice that the Egyptians enslaved the Jews, and he could not tolerate the Jewish ascendency. He rallied his troops and traversed the great desert, to meet up with the Jews in a dramatic clash of war.

He knew that he would likely be defeated. If Pharaoh could not overpower the Jewish G-d, how could Amalek hope to win? Yet, so great was his hatred that his own defeat did not deter him.

Supernatural Victory
This war was made dramatic not so much by the nature of the attack, but by the nature of the defense. Moses climbed a nearby mountain and lifted his hands in prayer. As Moses prayed, the Jewish army gained the upper hand. When Moses grew tired and his arms began to falter, Amalek gained the upper hand. noting Moses’ fatigue, Aaron and Chur, Moses’ brother and nephew, rushed to support his arms. With Moses arms upraised, the Jews won the war.

Our sages wondered, Did Moses’ arms win the war? No, they replied. So long as Moses’ arms were upraised, the Jews were reminded to look to G-d for victory. And when the Jewish warriors looked to G-d, they were victorious. When they stopped and relied instead on their own prowess, they fell back.

On the surface this answer makes sense. However, further analysis yields a question. This was not the only war that Jews fought in Moses’ era, yet Moses never made such an obvious display of controlling the war through prayer. What made this battle different?

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter offered the following answer in his magnum opus, Sefas Emes. G-d liberated the Jews from Egypt supernaturally. Water turned to blood, day turned to night, and oceans turned into dry land. The nations trembled because they acknowledged their powerlessness against G-d’s supernatural miracles. Hoping to prove that this was just a myth, Amalek launched a war against the Jews. His primary aim was to demonstrate that Jews, like everyone else, are subject to the natural order.

Moses felt that if Amalek were to be defeated by natural means, the Jews would win the battle, but Amalek would have made his point. He would proclaim that although his army had been defeated, the battle played out by natural means proving that Jews were just like other nations. To pre-empt this argument, Moses made an obvious show of praying to G-d. By demonstrating that the victory depended on G-d rather than man, G-d’s supernatural power over the course of events was clearly established.

Amalek’s descendant, Haman, followed in his ancestor’s footsteps. He too attempted to annihilate the Jews. However, this time the salvation came about in an entirely different manner. Rather than by a miraculous display of G-d’s supernatural power, Jews were saved by a seemingly ordinary chain of events. To be sure, the confluence of these events was nothing short of dramatic, but they were still ordinary events. No oceans split, and no arm, raised in prayer, caused Haman to die miraculously.

Why did G-d treat Haman’s threat differently from his grandfather’s threat?

The Nature of a Miracle
When G-d first took the Jews out of Egypt and appointed them ‘light unto the nations,’ it was necessary to establish G-d’s mastery over nature. When most people rejected the notion of G-d, it was necessary to prove that G-d exists and that He can perform a miracle at any time to bend nature to His will.

By the time Haman arrived, this fact had been well established. The Jews had experienced so many miracles that no one could deny G-d’s existence or His ability to overrule the natural order. The question that was left to be answered was this: Is G-d is in control even when nature is permitted to run its course?

Surely G-d can intervene and modify the course of nature, but suppose He chooses to sit back and let nature run its course, does Haman have a prayer of defeating the Jews? Or is nature somehow bound to G-d even when G-d doesn’t overtly bend it to His will?

Haman hoped to prove that though G-d can get His way with a miracle whenever He chooses, if He leaves it up to nature, Haman has as good a chance as G-d to prevail. To prove Haman wrong, G-d remained behind the scenes and allowed salvation to come through the natural course of events.

G-d’s hidden mastery over nature is even more impressive than His overt miracles. It is not surprising that G-d has the power to overrule nature with a miracle as He did in Egypt. But that G-d can keep nature in place and still nudge it in the direction of His choice, is quite the surprise. If nature operates according to its rules and still reaches the conclusions that G-d wants it to reach, then nature is G-d’s tool. G-d doesn’t need to force it to obey His will, nature follows G-d’s will spontaneously.

That explains why Purim is such a joyous holiday. It demonstrates that G-d is everywhere. Not only when He intrudes by miracle, but even when He allows the natural course of events to run their course. On the surface the world seems to be doing its own thing independently from G-d, but Purim demonstrated that under the surface, the universe follows G-d’s will.