The Torah portions we read at this time of the year are filled with miracles: Moses at the burning bush that didn’t burn; the turning of his staff into a snake; his hand becoming leprous and then normal; the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. Why all these miracles? Our sages suggest that each one has a special message. Take for example the bush that was aflame but did not burn. The bush represents the Jewish people. What Gd was saying in modern terms is, even if your enemies attempt to burn you in the crematorium, you may burn, but you will not be destroyed. Against all laws of nature, no one will ever succeed in destroying the Jewish people.
For the plagues Gd seems to be telling us His reason over and over again. In last week’s parsha with the 1st 7 plagues Gd says (Ex. 8:6), “so that you will know that there is none like Hashem our Gd;” and (Ex. 9:14), “so that you will know that there is none like Me in all the world,” and (Ex. 9:16), “in order to show you My strength so that My Name may be declared throughout the world.” In the 1st verse of this week’s Torah (Ex. 10:1) portion regarding the last 3 plagues Gd says, “so that I can put these signs in of Mine in Pharaoh’s midst; and (Ex. 11:9), “so that My wonders may be widely recognized in the Land of Egypt.”
It seems as if Gd’s reason for redeeming the Jewish people with the miracles of the plagues was for Him to gain recognition throughout the world. Why would Gd need such recognition? As I always emphasize, Kabbalah teaches us that Gd created the world to have an opportunity to demonstrate His goodness and that is possible only in a relationship. That teaches us that what Gd wants more than anything from human beings is a relationship! But it’s hard to have a relationship with human beings if most of the world doesn’t even know You exist!
In the beginning Gd sought a relationship with Adam and his children, but Adam disobeyed him and ate from the forbidden fruit, one of his sons killed another and his grandchildren were so evil that Gd had to bring a flood to destroy the world. That generation disobeyed Gd, but at least they knew there was a Gd in the world. Gd started over again with Noah who had an immoral incident with his children, while his grandchildren built a tower to conquer Gd! But at least they knew there was a Gd in the world. By the time the Jewish people found themselves in Egypt, hardly anyone knew or had ever heard of Gd. That’s why it was so astonishing when Joseph, dressed as the Prime Minister of Egypt, told his brothers who didn’t recognize him, “I fear Gd!”
It seems that Gd had a problem. Outside of the Jewish people almost no one knew He existed, almost no one knew that there was One Gd in the world—let alone having a relationship with Him! Gd’s solution, apparently, was to find a way to make everyone pay attention and see how He brought the greatest empire in the world—Egypt—to its knees for mistreating His people. And what better way to get people’s attention than with the very dramatic and miraculous plagues—as opposed to the millions of hidden miracles Gd performs every day.
Judaism, however, does not rely upon the miraculous as a foundation of faith because then Doug Henning or David Copperfield might become our major prophets. Miraculous phenomenon by itself doesn’t prove anything. They just have a message to teach. The purpose of the 10 plagues was, yes, to punish the Egyptians, but, as we just said, also to demonstrate to the world and even to the poor Jewish slaves—many who had lost their faith—that there is a Gd and that He hadn’t forgotten them. What about the manna, the magical food from heaven that feed the Jewish people for 40 years in the desert on their way to the promised land? The purpose of the manna was to provide food. What about the splitting of the sea in next week’s parsha? Its purpose was to drown the Egyptians, and it was done mida k’neged mida—just as the Egyptians drowned the Jewish children so they were drowned in the sea. In other words, miracles are functional and not demonstrative, because miracles don’t prove anything.
Franz Rosensweig, the great German Jewish philosopher, wrote: Miracles only take place in the present, never in the past. This is so, not because miracles are not miracles, but because the past is the past. Once a miracle has taken place, it is easy to explain it away, to say it was a coincidence, to give it a natural explanation. After the fact, a miracle is no miracle, because we quickly lose the sense of wonder and revert back to our blasé ways. A miracle points the way to Gd, but only to those who are willing and able to look at it, to really look at it, and to appreciate the wonder that it contains.
An attorney named Joel Cohen in his book, Moses: A Memoir, imagines himself in the mind of Moses trying to picture what Moses felt and what he thought during those long and difficult years when he led the people of Israel. In one of the chapters he discusses the miracles of this sedra:
The Torah deliberately restrains itself when describing the 10 plagues. There is no gory description of croaking frogs or screaming bats; no depiction of wild beasts rampaging and terrorizing the people of Egypt. We do not feel on our skin the boils that tortured all the Egyptians, from Pharaoh on down. We do not feel the enveloping darkness that blinded the whole country for 3 long days and 3 long nights. Instead, we have simple sentences, almost bland sentences that describe the on-again, off-again year of plagues that was inflicted on our enemy.
Why? So that the reader’s free will is not diminished. For if the accounts were too graphic, we would not have the choice of whether to believe them or not. The lesson is that miracles exist only for those who allow themselves to see them or are willing to accept them. Only the belief, not well-sculpted stories, allows miracles to be perceives. Indeed, even having observed the miracles that defeated Pharaoh, the wonder wore off, and by the time the Israelites arrived in the wilderness they no longer remembered the miracles that they had believed for a time…But let us not be too harsh in judging them, for we too forget wonders as soon as they have passed. We too lose our awe and let it wear off. And so if we judge them, we will be wrong.
Conjure, for example, things that are miracles today [remember this is Moses contemplating], but that may not be so tomorrow. Believe it or not, man, like the birds, may someday fly. Someday, some wise men, imbued with the spirit of Gd, may create a device that will allow us to rise up into the air in chariots to escape Pharaoh’s chariots. There may someday be a device that will enable human beings to defy the force that causes them to cling to the ground. And if that should ever happen, would such a device be less miraculous than that which we observed in Egypt? Would it not suffice to prove God’s greatness and compel faithfulness in the deserts of tomorrow?
Or, someday wise men may acquire sufficient wisdom to replenish lost blood, such as that of our brothers who were defeated by the enemy, Amalek. Will it be someday possible to transfer blood from one person to another, inconceivable as that sounds today? And if that should ever happen, will the people of that time be smart enough and sensitive enough to consider this a miracle?
…These thoughts that I conjure might be miracles even greater than those Gd performed in the year of our Liberation. And if they come into being, will our descendants not see them as miracles that prove Gd’s existence? Or will they take them for granted instead, and reduce them to the ordinary? Sure they can be called ordinary, if we wish. They are as “ordinary” as the rising sun, or the waning moon, or a child being born, or all the other wonders that point the way towards Gd.”
Isn’t that a powerful passage? It makes the point that we can dismiss—if we want to—the wonders that took place in Egypt and the wonders that take place in our lives right now…or we can appreciate them as nisim, marvels that point the way towards Gd.
If the creation of the airplane that enables human beings to fly faster than birds, if the creation of the medical devices that enable human beings to transfer blood from one person to another, if the creation of the internet that enables human beings to instantly hear and see events that are taking place on the other side of the world, and if the birth of a child…if these are not wonders, if these are things we take for granted, if these are not events that stir our souls, then of course how can we be impressed by the miracles in this week’s Torah reading?
If our souls are dead and our spirits are numb to the wonders that are with us every day, morning, noon, and night, then how can we be moved by wonders that took place thousands of years ago? The miraculous is constantly with us if we only open our eyes to see it. That’s what Gd wants from us—to see how much He does for us every day, to acknowledge it and to show gratitude and appreciation. And so let us thank Gd with the words we will shortly say in the Modim prayer in the Amida: “We thank you…for Your miracles that are with us every day, and for Your wonders and goodness at all times—evenings, mornings and afternoons. You Who are all good, do not ever stop your mercy or kindness.” And to this let us all say, “Amen!”
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis