Our previous chapter described Mashiach as a teacher and leader. Is that all? What about the miracles he will perform?

First, let’s see what we mean by a miracle. The Book of Kings1 tells us the following story: Idolatry was rampant in Israel and therefore, the land was plagued by drought. Elijah the prophet appeared before Ahab, the idol-worshipping king, and told him to prepare a confrontation between himself and the prophets of Baal.

Both he and the heathen prophets would build altars on Mount Carmel. They would both sacrifice bulls, but would not kindle fire under the sacrifices. The power that would send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice would be accepted as G‑d. The prophets of Baal offered their sacrifice first, and called out to their god fervently, but there was no answer.

Elijah then built an altar to G‑d, offered his sacrifice, had it doused with water (to prove the miracle was not a ruse), and then called upon G‑d. And He answered, sending down a great flame which consumed the sacrifice, the altar, and the water.

Most people associate the coming of Mashiach with wonders of this nature, and think of Mashiach as a miracle-worker. On one hand, the image is attractive. Everyone enjoys seeing the amazing, particularly if these miracles are to their benefit.

On the other hand, the very notion of miracles is strange, even threatening to some of us. For miracles require the adoption of a new world view, and we are not excited about doing that. We would like tomorrow to go on more or less like yesterday without ruffling the routines of our everyday lives. Miracles surely upset these norms, and that makes us uneasy.

Theoretically, the concept of Mashiach as a miracle worker raises three questions: a) Do miracles take place? b) Can miracles happen in the present age? c) Is there a connection between miracles and Mashiach’s coming?

a) Do miracles happen?

We all tell our children stories of the ten plagues in Egypt, and of the cruse of oil which burnt for eight days on Chanukah, but often people tell these stories like fairy tales. They have a hard time accepting that these things actually took place. And because they tell the stories this way, it’s no wonder that when they grow up, their children also have a hard time believing them.

This is a fundamental issue. Believing that there is a G‑d above nature, and that He can make miracles happen as He desires is not escapism. It is an appreciation of the true reality. G‑d created the world and brought into being the natural order from absolute nothingness. In doing so, He established a pattern which governs our existence, but not His.

The moment-to-moment working of the natural order is also G‑d’s doing. Indeed, nature can be considered a continuous series of miracles,2 since everything, even the fluttering of a leaf in the wind, occurs due to Divine Providence.3 Since He maintains the natural order as an exercise of His will, He can intervene in the workings of our world whenever He desires.

b) Can miracles happen in the present age?

Even if we admit that miracles happen, it’s far more comfortable to consider them as past history. Miracles in the past don’t present a personal challenge. It is a very different story to say miracles can affect our lives today.

Jewish law4 requires that a person who sees a place where a miracle occurred recite a blessing: “Blessed are You, G‑d, our L-rd, King of the universe, who wrought a miracle for me in this place.”

After the rescue of Israel’s hostages in Entebbe (1976), one of them asked Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading halachic authority of the time, whether he would be required to recite this blessing if he ever visited Entebbe again. Rabbi Feinstein said yes.5

And on a global scale, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the crumbling of communism, the events of the Gulf War, and the arrival of massive waves of immigrants to Eretz Yisrael are events whose miraculous nature stands out boldly. Yes, there could be a natural explanation for all these occurrences. But you could also give a natural explanation for the splitting of the Red Sea (there was, after all, an east wind blowing throughout the night). The fact is that if a person had predicted the events of recent years a decade ago, his statements would have been considered preposterous. Ask any soldier who served in the Gulf; he’ll tell you that miracles are just as possible today as they were in the past.

c) Is there a connection between miracles and Mashiach’s coming?

This is a question concerning which there is a difference of opinion among our Sages. Our prophets say:6 “As in the days of your exodus from Egypt, I will show you wonders,” implying that the exodus from Egypt serves as the archetype for redemption, and that the future Redemption will also be characterized by great miracles. Similarly, we find many prophecies of Mashiach’s coming, e.g., “a wolf will dwell with the lamb,”7 which clearly point to a fundamental change in the natural order.

In the Talmud,8 however, there is a difference of opinion about the matter. Rabbi Chiya bar Abba says the prophets’ words are to be understood literally and the Era of the Redemption will be characterized by miracles. Another Sage, Shmuel, differs, stating: “There is no difference between the current age and the Era of Mashiach except the subjugation [of Israel] to the [gentile] kingdoms.”

According to this view, as explained by Maimonides,9 the prophets’ statements are merely allegories used to describe the changes that will occur at that time. For example, in the prophecy cited above, the “wolf” represents the gentile nations, and the “lamb” the Jewish people; in the Era of the Redemption, the Jews will live at peace with the gentiles. Similarly, in regard to the Era of Redemption as a whole: its advent will bring about a transition in every phase of our lives. Nevertheless, the natural order will not be upset.

Maimonides makes similar statements regarding Mashiach as an individual:10

One should not entertain the notion that the King Mashiach must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena within the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is [definitely] not true.

A proof can be brought from the fact that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Sages of the Mishnah, supported King Ben Koziva,11 and would describe him as the King Mashiach…. The Sages did not ask him for any signs or wonders.

Maimonides continues,12 focusing on “the main thrust of the matter: This Torah, with its statutes and laws, is everlasting”; i.e., his conception of Mashiach is that of a Torah leader, not a miracle worker.

There are other Rabbis13 who advance the opinion that the Era of the Redemption will be characterized by miracles. Similarly, in regard to Mashiach, they posit that he will prove his identity by performing wonders. Significantly, in another text,14 Maimonides himself mentions the possibility of Mashiach coming in a miraculous manner.

In subsequent generations, the Rabbis15 have tried to resolve these two views, explaining that Maimonides also believes there will come a time when the natural order will give way to a miraculous frame of reference. For Maimonides lists as the last of his Thirteen Principles of Faith,16 belief in the Resurrection of the Dead; this surely represents a drastic deviation from the natural order.

Thus these authorities explain that, according to Maimonides, there will be two periods in the Era of the Redemption: one directly following the coming of Mashiach in which the current natural order will continue to prevail, and a subsequent period of miraculous occurrences, including the Resurrection of the Dead.

From a philosophic perspective, we can appreciate the necessity for two periods. In the Era of the Redemption it will be revealed that our world is a dwelling for G‑d.17 Were it necessary for the Era of the Redemption to involve miracles, this would seem to imply that the world as it exists in its present form could not, Heaven forbid, serve as such a dwelling. It would thus appear that the natural order stands in opposition to the manifestation of His presence. Therefore the Era of the Redemption will include a period when the natural order remains and yet, “the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.”18

In this framework, Mashiach’s goal will be to initiate a new age of understanding and knowledge. To do this, he will be a teacher and leader. The wonders he works must be within people’s minds, not necessarily within the world at large.

The concept of the world as G‑d’s dwelling, however, leads to a further concept. Just as a person expresses himself freely in his own home, G‑d’s essence will be revealed within our material world. This implies the revelation, not only of the limited dimensions of G‑dliness that can be enclothed within the confines of the natural order, but also the expression of transcendent aspects of G‑dliness whose manifestation will nullify that natural order. These transcendent qualities will be revealed in the second period of the Era of the Redemption.19