Two Wars

Why don’t we see miracles in our time, similar to what our ancestors saw in biblical times? I would think that if G‑d were to show His hand today, it would inspire billions to believe in Him.

In answer to this question, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the eighteenth-century chief rabbi of Prague,1 pointed out that there were occasions in biblical times when the Israelites could have used a miracle, but no miracle occurred. We read about one such example in the book of Numbers.2

As Moses and the Israelites neared the end of their 40-year trek across the desert, they prepared to enter Israel. Moses had already been told that he would not enter the Holy Land, but he was committed to bringing his people to the Jordan River. The problem was that several mighty nations sat between the desert and the river, and they refused to allow the Israelites passage.

Moses appealed for permission to pass through, but the armies of the Amorites and of Bashan mobilized to block their way. G‑d appeared to Moses and told him not to fear. The mighty armies and fortresses of these countries would fall to the Israelites. Indeed, the Torah describes the wholesale victory of the Jewish people: “There was not a populated city that the Israelites did not take.”3 Every hamlet, town and village, every city, region and province fell to the advancing Israelites.

A relatively unknown force of Jewish fighters utterly trounced developed armies. A remarkable victory that was not accompanied by a single supernatural miracle. No seas split and no walls tumbled. It was a matter of a small, lean army defeating a smart, powerful one on fair and natural terms.

This story demonstrates that G‑d is perfectly capable of saving us or helping us without resorting to miraculous feats. He merely manipulates events in patterns that are favorable to us. Small armies are sometimes victorious even without a miracle, and that was the case here.

This raises a question: If Moses was able to win wars without miracles, why were miracles necessary for Joshua to conquer Israel? Would the Israelites have lost the battle of Jericho if the walls had not crumbled miraculously? If Moses won his battles naturally, surely Joshua could have been victorious too.

Following this line of thought, Rabbi Landau concludes that supernatural miracles are not performed to save the righteous. The righteous can be saved by events we might define as “coincidence,” without resorting to the miraculous. G‑d performs miracles to make a statement. There was a statement that needed to be made about Joshua’s war that did not need to be made about Moses’ wars.

Jewish Right to Jewish Land

G‑d promised the Land of Israel to our forefathers many times. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses all received assurances from G‑d that the land would be given to their children. But these prophecies were private events that no one else was privy to. These prophets shared their prophecy with others, but skeptics and deniers were free to disbelieve.

When Joshua marched his armies into Israel, it seemed to all appearances like a war of conquest. The Israelites needed a place to live, and Israel was desirable. Notwithstanding the rights of the local residents, Joshua marched in and took the land. The right of conquest was certainly respected in those days, but if the world assumed that this was the only claim Israelites had to Israel, they would have missed the entire point.

G‑d performed miracles during this war to make the point that it was His wish that the Israelites be given the Holy Land. This was not a normal war, where “to the victor go the spoils.” This was a Divinely ordained campaign in which the Creator gave this slice of earth to the Israelites. No one could later argue that Israelites have a moral obligation to return the land to its original owners, as it was given by G‑d.

Such miracles were not necessary for Moses’ war, because indeed that war was not designed by G‑d to give land to the Israelites. That war could have been avoided had those nations granted the Israelites free passage. It was only because they mobilized against the Israelites that G‑d gave Moses permission to fight back. There was no need to make a statement about this war. It was what it purported to be: a nation defending itself against attack and winning the war. These lands fell to the Israelites by right of conquest, not by Divine promise. It was a conquest promised in advance by G‑d, but that is all it was.

Miracles Today

I don’t think it is a stretch to extend this argument to our times. We don’t see awe-inspiring miracles in our day. Seas don’t split, and bread doesn’t fall from heaven. Fortresses don’t crumble, and firstborns don’t die. But the truth is that we also don’t need to hear these statements anymore. These statements have already been made. G‑d Almighty has said all that needed to be said, and has no need to repeat Himself. On the contrary, if G‑d were to repeat Himself even once, we would expect Him to repeat His statements regularly. We would form the impression that G‑d must continually prove Himself to us or we are entitled to deny His existence. As if G‑d’s statements have a statute of limitation or a “renew before” date.

G‑d does not need to come back to us again and again to prove that He exists and that He exercises control. If we choose to believe in Him, we have ample proof in the miracles from the past. If we choose not to believe, we would find a way out even if miracles were to occur in the present. Even if we were to believe in the present, we would find a way to make these proofs expire in the future.

The upshot is this. We don’t need miracles to believe in G‑d today. With all the miracles of the past, and with the tradition handed down to us by our forbearers, we have all the proof we need. If we choose to believe, we are fortunate. All we need to do is to put our belief to work in the form of Torah and mitzvahs.