Why Don't Open Miracles Happen?
Many years ago I taught at a Hebrew School that provided four hours a week of Torah study. The students were children from non-Orthodox homes who wanted a traditional Bar or Bat Mitzva, and planned on saying bye-bye to Judaism immediately thereafter.
This was a particularly challenging job; the students came with little interest, my time with them was extremely limited, and there were no grades to motivate them. Their only obligation was to show up. The deck was stacked against me, but if I failed to inspire them, who knew when or if there would be another chance?
I remember one student who was particularly bright, but his intelligence was matched by his cynicism. One time he declared that he would believe in God if God performed an open miracle for him. As far as I know, God was not swayed by this ultimatum.
I replied with an observation I heard from Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler (may he live and be well to see the redemption). Imagine if someone with knowledge of modern science came to a village even two hundred years ago – far from ancient times. He claimed that he was God, and proved this by pressing a button over here and making a light go on over there. Would the people not accept this as a miracle? Couldn't so much of what we take for granted today easily pass for a miracle in earlier times?
Similarly, even if God performed an "open miracle", the skeptic could easily dismiss it as an act of nature or a technological sleight of hand. Indeed, this is what ancient skeptics did with biblical miracles, the sort of miracles that modern skeptics claim they need to experience in order to believe in God. It's a bluff.
Furthermore, God has neither the obligation nor interest to change nature and reveal Himself to every fool who demands it. Aside from the obvious hubris of such a demand from a lowly speck of dust, it would be impossible for the world to function in a natural way – which is God's will – if He performed open miracles on demand. God does so when it is convenient for Him, not when it is convenient for you.
There is no shortage of evidence of God's presence for those who care to see it. At the same time, there is always an opening for people to deny God's presence (which stems not from intellect, but from a desire to be one's own god). This is necessary for free choice – the foundation of human life in this world – to be preserved. God's presence is clear to all who care to see it, but there needs to be "plausible deniability" for those who don't.
While there is no need for God to perform open miracles in our time, many people wonder why He chooses not to. Even those of us who know God's existence with certainty (which the Torah expects of us, not mere belief), and who recognize His presence in hidden miracles large and small, are still bothered that we don't see miracles of biblical proportions. Why does the coronavirus not simply disappear from Israel? Why does the earth not open up and swallow up our enemies, while leaving our friends intact?
The answer comes from the Midrash Rabba in Eicha 1:3 (Soncino translation):
"'How has she become like a widow!' Rabbi Hama bar Ukba and the Rabbis offer explanations. Rabbi Hama bar Ukba said: It may be likened to a widow who demanded her alimony but not her marriage settlement.
"The Rabbis said: It may be likened to a king who was angry with his consort and wrote out her get, but got up and snatched it from her. Whenever she wished to remarry, he said to her, 'Where is your get?' and whenever she demanded her alimony, he said to her, 'But have I not divorced you?' Similarly, whenever Israel wished to practice idolatry, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, 'Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement?' (Yeshaha 50:1); and whenever they wished that He should perform miracles for them as formerly, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, 'Have I not already divorced you?' That is what is written, 'I had put her away and given her a bill of divorcement.'" (Yirmiya 3:8)
The expositions on this pasuk are based on the Jews being referred to as like a widow, but not actually a widow. In other words, the relationship with Hashem is strained, but the marital bond is intact (the single letter that prefixes "widow" to make it a simile and not a metaphor dispels replacement theology all by itself).
The explanations of Rabbi Hama bar Ukba and the Rabbis shed light on one another. A widow is entitled to maintenance from the husband's estate so long as she remains in his home. If she wishes to leave or remarry, she may claim a one-time alimony settlement and forfeit her maintenance. Because the Jews refused to abandon God's home – Israel and the Beis Hamikdash – they never forfeited their maintenance. God must continue to maintain the Jewish people. He cannot give us a one-time parting gift and send us away forever.
At the same time, when we ask for open miracles, God replies that the marital relationship is strained. Our relationship resembles that of a couple who has divorced, but the marriage is still intact. We cannot practice idolatry because we are still bonded to God, but He will not perform open miracles for us because we are separated.
The degree of miracles that we experience as a nation is one gauge of our closeness with Hashem. There is no rule that God cannot or will not perform open miracles for us; quite the contrary. If the shalom bayis in our relationship is restored to former levels, we will immediately merit to see open miracles. The more the relationship is strained, the less frequent and more subtle the miracles become.
In spite of this, there will always be miracles for the Jewish people, for even in the worst of times God will provide maintenance for His people. Those who survived the Holocaust and who fought in Israel's wars attest to this. The question is not "Where is God?" The question is whether our relationship with God as a nation is strained or intimate. If it is the former, God forbid, we will merit only to be maintained, to somehow make it through the troubles and to be preserved for a future time. If it is the latter, we will see open miracles.
It's really that simple.