The story of Aaron’s blossoming staff is told in our Parshah. Korach and his rebellious faction had contested Aaron’s right to the kehunah gedolah (high priesthood). In order to reiterate His choice of Aaron to serve Him in the Sanctuary as the representative of the Jewish nation, G‑d instructed Moses:

“Take . . . a staff from each of [the tribes’] leaders . . . and write each one’s name on his staff. Write the name of Aaron on the staff of Levi . . . and the man whom I shall choose, his staff will blossom . . .”

Moses placed each staff before G‑d in the Sanctuary. On the next day . . . behold, the staff of Aaron was blossoming: it brought forth blossoms, produced fruit and bore ripe almonds. (Numbers 17:16–24)

In a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Shabbat Korach (the Shabbat on which the Torah section of Korach is read) of 1991, the Rebbe cited the above incident as a classic example of what he called a “natural miracle.” G‑d did not simply make almonds appear on Aaron’s staff. Rather, He stimulated in it the full natural process of budding, blossoming, and the emergence and the ripening of the fruit—as the above verses relate, signs of all these stages were seen on Aaron’s staff. Aaron’s staff defied nature’s laws and restrictions, yet it conformed to the phases of growth that the almond naturally undergoes. It transcended nature, but did so on nature’s own terms.

In other words, said the Rebbe, there are two types of miracles:

  1. A confrontational miracle, which overpowers and displaces the natural norm, creating a reality that is completely contrary nature’s laws.
  2. A natural miracle, which, though it may be no less “impossible” by the standard norms, and no less obvious a display of the hand of G‑d, nevertheless occurs by natural means, employing natural phenomena and processes to achieve its end.

To understand the difference between these two types of miracles, we need to examine the purpose of miracles in general.

The Hebrew word for miracle, nes, means “aloft” and “elevated.” The regularity and predictability of nature creates so-called “laws”: this is the way it is, says the natural order, and you cannot but conform to this defined and bounded reality. The truth, however, is otherwise—that man and his world have been imbued by their Creator with the potential to raise and elevate their existence, to go beyond what is dictated by the “way things are.” A miracle, with its open display of divine power, has an uplifting effect on those who experience it, enabling them to see through the façade of nature, and inspiring them to transcend the perceived limitations of their own nature and the accepted norms of their society.

At first glance, it might seem that the natural miracle’s “need” to resort to natural processes makes it less of a miracle. In truth, however, a miracle that works through nature is even more elevating (i.e., more “miraculous”) than a miracle that supersedes it. A sudden, shattering change has not transformed nature, but only gone beyond it; but when a miracle is integrated into the workings of nature, nature itself is elevated. A supra-natural miracle liberates the person who experiences it from the natural order; a natural miracle liberates the very substance of the natural order itself.

The Day the Sun Stood Still

The Parshah of Korach is usually read in the first week of the month of Tammuz. The Shabbat on which the Rebbe spoke about the miracle of Aaron’s staff was the 3rd of Tammuz, and the Rebbe found two more historical examples of “natural miracles,” both ocurring on that date.

On the third of Tammuz of the year 2488 from creation (1273 BCE), Joshua was leading the Jewish people in one of the battles to conquer the Land of Israel. Victory was imminent, but darkness was about to fall. “Sun,” proclaimed Joshua, “be still at Giv’on; moon, at the Ayalon Valley” (Joshua 10:12). The heavenly bodies acquiesced, halting their progress through the sky until Israel’s armies brought the battle to its successful conclusion.

Our sages have said that “G‑d does not perform a miracle in vain.” Why, then, the drastic astronomical changes effected at Joshua’s behest? Would it not have sufficed to perform a more limited miracle, such as merely illuminating the battle site at Giv’on by some other supra-natural means?

But a miraculous engineering of “artificial” light would have meant that the laws of nature were merely superseded, not transformed. To inspire the people of Israel to not only transcend their natural self but also to transform and sublimate it, G‑d insisted that the miraculous light provided them should be natural sunlight—even if this meant creating a new natural order in the heavens.

A Miracle in Phases

The second natural miracle associated with the 3rd of Tammuz occurred on that date 3,199 years later—this time in even more natural (and thus, even more miraculous) terms.

The 3rd of Tammuz, in the Jewish year 5687 (1927), was the day on which the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880–1950), was released from the Spalerna prison in Leningrad (today Petersburg).

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was arrested by agents of the GPU (Soviet secret police, forerunner of the KGB) and the Yevsektzia (“Jewish section” of the Communist Party) because of his efforts to sustain and promote Jewish life under communist rule. He was sentenced to death, G‑d forbid, but international pressure compelled the Soviet regime to commute this first to a sentence of ten years of hard labor in Siberia, and then to a three-year term of exile in Kostroma, a town in the interior of Russia. On the 3rd of Tammuz he was released from prison and sent to exile. (See The Rebbe’s Prison Diary.)

Nine days later, on the 12th of Tammuz, came a further phase of the Rebbe’s liberation—an order freeing him to return to his home in Leningrad. Several months later, he was allowed to leave the country. From outside Russia’s borders, the rebbe continued to direct his underground network of emissaries and activists who provided, and provide to this very day (though no longer clandestinely), spiritual and material support to Jews in every corner of the former Soviet empire.

In a letter written for the first anniversary of his release, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak states: “Not only myself did G‑d redeem on this day . . . but also every one who goes by the name ‘Israel.’” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had taken on the all-powerful Party, and had prevailed. Those who sought to destroy Jewish life in the Soviet Union were themselves forced to concede that they had no right to prevent a Jew’s practice of his faith.

Now—concluded the Rebbe in his 1991 address—after more than six decades, we have been privileged to witness a further realization of the rebbe’s, and Russian Jewry’s, victory. The miraculous transformation now underway in that country is the continued unfolding of the miracle we saw on the 3rd of Tammuz of 1927.

Here we have a “natural miracle” of the highest order. On the one hand, this is a chain of events that transcended all natural laws and norms. To suggest, in the darkest years of Stalinism, that a single individual could contest the all-powerful Party’s “right” to uproot Judaism in the Soviet Union, and persevere; to suggest that Communism’s stranglehold over hundreds of millions of souls would shrivel away; in other words, to have predicted 1991 in 1927—would have been tantamount to saying the sun would change its course. At the same time, however, this was a “natural miracle,” as emphasized by the fact that: a) the rebbe’s salvation involved the acquiescence of those who first arrested and sentenced him (a change from within, as in the recent events in that country); and b) that the victory was not immediate and complete, but came about in phases, and continued to unfold over the course of many years.

The 3rd of Tammuz was the day that a new reality supplanted the old. Yet this new reality came into being by wholly “conventional” means, in the gradual and incremental manner that is the hallmark of a natural development.

Lofty and Lesser Examples

This, said the Rebbe, is the lesson of the 3rd of Tammuz: not to be intimidated by the limits of natural norms, but also not to disavow them. Instead, we should work within them to broaden and expand them. Rather than seeking to liberate ourselves of the circumstances of nature, we should seek to liberate and elevate the nature of nature itself.

The story is told of a chassid who was walking home from a late-night farbrengen (chassidic gathering) many hours after the curfew imposed on his war-torn region of Eastern Europe. A policeman, noticing the solitary Jew, shouted, “Halt! Who goes there?!” The chassid, immersed in his farbrengen-induced thoughts, replied: “Bittul goes!” This chassid had so completely internalized the chassidic doctrine of bittul (self-abnegation) that this was his instinctive reaction to a demand that he identify himself.

Man’s most basic instinct is the preservation and fulfillment of self. So bittul, which is the negation of self before a greater reality, goes against the very grain of human nature: the attainment of bittul is a “miracle,” a supernatural transformation. Nevertheless, for this chassid, bittul did not imply the obliteration of identity; rather, it was the slow, gradual divestment of the “I” of its egocentric tendencies and its reorientation toward a higher, bittul-suffused identity. In the “supernatural miracle” mode, bittul means lack of identity; as a “natural miracle,” bittul is the person’s identity.

But the same lesson can be applied to our “lesser” miracles as well. We must never accept the invincibility of any status quo; at the same time, our norm-transcending approach should not result in accomplishments which remain outside of who and what we are. Rather, we should strive to make miraculous the very nature of life.