Rav Papa said to Abaye, "What is the difference between the former generation and us, that miracles happened for them, and yet not for us?"... He replied, "The former generations sacrificed themselves for the sanctity of the name [of God]; we do not sacrifice ourselves for the sanctity of the name [of God]."
Talmud Brochos 20a
What provokes an obvious miracle? (There is a distinction between overt miracles and covert miracles. The latter happen all the time and are camouflaged to appear like acts of ‘nature’ (e.g., the entire process of birth); the former clearly break all the known patterns of creation in a way that does not suggest a random occurrence.) What draws out obvious Divine intervention? The Talmud’s answer: willingness to sanc-tify the name of God, even if it means giving up one’s own life. But is this true? Is self-sacrifice enough to be a source of miracles? Consider the following midrash:
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Rabbi Samuel, the son of Rabbi Isaac said, ‘Abraham would not have been saved from the furnace of fire had it not been for the merit of his future grandson, Jacob.’ A parable explains this: once a man was brought before the Sultan to be judged, who subsequently ruled that the man should be burned to death. However, by way of astrology, it was revealed to the Sultan that in the future, the man, should he not be killed, would father a daughter who would one day marry the king. The Sultan said, ‘It is worth saving this man’s life for the daughter that will one day marry the king!’ Thus Abraham was judged to be burned in Ur Kasdim, and when it was revealed before God that in the future, Abraham would have a descendant Jacob, God said, ‘It is worth saving Abraham in the merit of Jacob!’ (Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 63:2.)Tradition tells us that from an early age, Abraham was a truth-seeker. Though he was raised in an idol-worshipping society, he still believed that if there was a God, He had to be beyond physical limitation, not made of stone, wood, or metal.
It did not take long before Nimrod, king and self-proclaimed god of Babylonia, heard of Abra-ham’s belief. As a result, Abraham was brought before Nimrod and challenged. Abraham’s choice: give up his belief in God, or burn to death. Abraham chose to stand by his belief in God.
The day Abraham was to enter the furnace was a festive day for the Babylonians. (In fact, donations to cover the cost of the burning were plenty and generous.) But in spite of the fact that Abraham spent three days and nights in the fiery furnace, he did not burn. The servants of Nimrod opened the door expecting to find only ashes, but instead found a healthy Abraham to their utter shock and disbelief.
It was a great miracle that saved Abraham from certain death, and it earned him the respect of the people of Babylonia, including Nimrod himself. But why did Abraham warrant such a miracle in the first place? Was it because of his willingness to sacrifice his life to sanctify God’s name?
No, says the midrash. Abraham should have and would have died that day had it not been for Jacob.
This does not mean, however, that had Abraham died he would not have received ample reward for his self-sacrifice. (This is an important point that often gets overlooked in the discussion about suffering.) Perhaps he would even have been rewarded for what he would have achieved had he not been a ‘victim’ of man’s free-willed choices. In the end, Abraham’s death would have been the world’s loss, not his own, for eternal reward in the World-to-Come would have more than compensated him for what he had suffered in this world. (‘Ethics of Our Fathers’ teaches that one hour of eternal reward is far more pleasurable that an entire life of pleasure in this temporal world. This will be dealt with in more detail in Section Two.)
From the midrash, it seems what ‘forced’ God to make a miracle, even though it lessened the opportunity for free will choice of those who witnessed it, was the future birth of Jacob. The potential loss of Jacob weighed greater in the heavenly scale than the loss of the free-will of the Babylonians who witnessed the miracle.
(The Midrash indicates elsewhere that the philosophy of the Babylonians probably wouldn’t have permitted them to seek truth. However, even after the miracle, there were many who refused to accept Abraham’s explanation of the miracle, and instead attributed his redemption from the flames to magic. And by the splitting of the sea (Exodus 14:21), God employed and east wind to bring the miracle about, leaving enough room for doubt to remain in the mind’s of disbelievers as to the involvement of God.)
This principle is by no means absolute, (In the book, The Way of God, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, in the essay titled, ‘Miracles,’ states various reasons for the occurrence of a miracle, but concludes by saying, "It is possible that miracles should occur for many other reasons that are not comprehensible to us at all." It is a fundamental of Judaism that as much as we’re able to detect logic behind God’s actions, there is always an element of mystery that remains. An anology of this may be, as much as people understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, there is still much they don’t understand about it. Even that which they think they understand they probably don’t completely relate to. If this true when understanding the ideas of humans, how much more so is this the case when trying understand Divine wisdom!) but it does give an indication as to what might lead to an obvious miracle in some situations. Thus, if a person is indispensable to creation because of what he or she will eventually produce if he or she survives, then, though man’s free will choices might lead to their death, God may interfere on his or her behalf to save them.
This of course does not mean that if a miracle is not performed to save a person’s life, he is not viewed as righteous in the eyes of God. It just means that the open miracle necessary to save the person would have a negative net effect on history as a whole, and this is an accounting only God can make. (Likewise, to be saved by an open miracle suggests a responsibility to the future of mankind. It is also the belief in this idea that prompts people, when in dangerous situations, to make vows to God that depend upon their personal salvation, to justify a miracle being done for them.)
Thus, in the end, the will of man creates the need for miracles, but the ultimate purpose of creation sometimes demands that God not get so involved in the affairs of humans, at least not in an obvious way. The net result of these two opposing needs may be suffering, even for the righteous. However, this does not mean that the suffering that does occur does not accomplish something positive.