The Passover holiday is filled with miraculous stories that convey the essential message of Passover, which is, that Gd loves us. At the Seders on the 1st 2 days, we retell in story, song and symbolic foods the miracles of the exodus. On the 7th day we tell the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. This morning, on the Shabbos in between, I’d like to share another miraculous story. This from our Sephardic brethren in Bagdad, probably sometime in the Middle Ages.
It was midday when an elderly traveler entered the Jewish quarter of Baghdad. The marketplace, where merchants from many lands sold their fabrics, spices and other wares, seemed strangely empty for such a day. He sighted the grandest building in the section, and determined that must be the great synagogue…There was a commotion from within the sanctuary. He peeked inside and…hundreds of Jews were fervently chanting Psalms amidst tears and sobs.
“What has happened?” he asked of the 1st Jew whose attention he could grasp. Hurriedly, and in a voice of desperation, the man told him…the Sultan decreed that the Jewish people of Baghdad must produce a leader who could perform miracles as Moses had done. Since Moses was the leader of the Jewish people in Egypt, and he was able to do miracles, the Sultan expected the same from the leader of the Jews of Baghdad. If they would not produce such a miracle-maker, the Jews would be expelled…Therefore, all of the Jews were fasting and praying to Gd for salvation.
It seems that the Sultan’s chief advisor, Mustafa, was a vicious Jew-hater whose mission it was to destroy the Jews, or at least to have them banished from Baghdad. He had convinced the Sultan that the Jews were not only infidels for denying the prophet Mohammed, but were thieves and liars as well, deserving immediate expulsion. At 1st the Sultan was hesitant to believe Mustafa; however, the Sultan was told about what had happened when the Jews left Egypt and what Moses did to Pharaoh. He began to worry that perhaps one of the Jewish leaders of Baghdad would attack him with plagues, and decided he did not want to take any chances. Therefore, he issued a decree that the Jews had to produce a leader like Moses, or leave immediately.
The wise, elderly traveler…approached one of the rabbis at the front of the synagogue and whispered in his ear…Soon there was a loud clap on the lectern, and the rabbi said: “This man who is visiting our town says that he has a plan. He will travel to the Sultan immediately to try and save us. If he is successful, we will rejoice. However, if he fails, he will tell the Sultan that he acted alone. Meanwhile, we will continue to pray for his success!”
The man headed for the palace, pounded on the entrance gate, and said, “I am a Jew who can do miracles, and I demand to see the Sultan immediately.” Before long, he found himself face to face with the ruler of Baghdad. “So,” said the Sultan, “You claim you can do miracles like Moses. What can you do?”
Dozens of people at the royal court starred at the old man with the white beard and piercing eyes. “If you would be so kind,” said he, “I will perform a miracle akin to those which Moses himself did. Before your very eyes, I will cut off a man’s head with a sword, and then put him back together and make him live!”
The Sultan smiled nervously and glanced around, not knowing what to think or make of the situation. Perhaps the fellow was completely crazy. Or perhaps he was telling the truth. After all, the he seemed extremely confident, and spoke with such conviction. What if he was telling the truth? If he doubted him, then who knows what kind of wrath would be unleashed on the Sultan and his kingdom.
He continued, “There is but one condition. The man whose head I cut off must be truly wise. In fact, he must be the wisest man in the realm. If not, his head will not properly reattach.”
Intrigued, the Sultan decided he must see for himself if the Jew was telling the truth. He looked around the room until his eyes fell on Mustafa, his chief advisor and the wisest man in the kingdom. Before the Sultan said a word, Mustafa cried out, “No, he is lying! The Jew is an impostor! He can’t really cut someone’s head off and reattach it.”
“That might be true,” said the Sultan, “but what if he is telling the truth and we don’t accommodate him? Surely you don’t want to put the whole kingdom at risk! After all, were you not the one who had advised me to expel the Jews, lest we be put in danger? Bring the sword immediately,” cried the Sultan. “Mustafa has volunteered!”
With that, Mustafa began to tremble and yelled out, “No, I admit it. I was both wrong and very foolish. The Jewish people do not have extraordinary powers!” Mustafa ran out of the palace, never to be seen again. The Sultan annulled the decree, thanked the Jew for coming, and said that the Jews were welcome to live in Baghdad as long as they desired. Mustafa ran out of the palace, never to be seen again.
The man returned to the synagogue to share the good news. Immediately, there was unbelievable rejoicing for the miracle that Gd had done for His people. Then quietly and quickly, the old man slipped out and left the town before anyone could even get his name.
Who was that masked-man, to paraphrase the admirers of the Lone Ranger? Some people say that he was none other than Elijah the Prophet. Elijah the Prophet, as Gd’s representative here on earth, has probably appeared in all of our lives at one time or another to guide us and protect us as some anonymous person we never gave a 2nd thought about.
Question: Regarding the miracle of the last plague, why did Gd command the Jews to sacrifice the Pascal lamb and smear its blood on their door-posts? Did Gd really need this sign to identify the Jewish homes and pass over them?
Rabbi David Aaron, in his book, Seeing Gd (p.13), suggests that there really is only one obstacle that can stand in the way of Gd’s love. “Gd loves each of us unconditionally,” he writes, “but He can’t make us believe that He loves us.” The Prophet Isaiah later defends the Jewish people, claiming that they are sinning because Gd is not present for them as He was for the people in the Exodus from Egypt. Gd responds [Isaiah 65:1] by saying: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me. I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said, Hineyni, hineyni, ‘Here I am, here I am.’”
Gd may pour His love upon us—doing countless silent miracles for us every day—but it’s up to us to acknowledge and accept His love. That’s what smearing the blood on the door-posts was all about. Gd didn’t need an identifying sign, but we had to identify ourselves as wanting redemption and believing it can happen. And we needed the blood on the doorpost as a physical sign that Gd loves us and would protect us. Gd, in effect, was saying to us with this command, “Nothing can stand in the way of My love for you, except you.”
In discussing the crossing of the Red Sea, Maimonides suggests what seems like a bizarre approach to the crossing of the Red Sea. He proposes that the Jewish people didn’t actually cross from one side to the other. They instead entered and exited on the same coast, entering the sea and returning to the same beach front, just further down the coast. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, of the YU Center for the Jewish Future, comments on Maimonides’ suggestion. He says that, “Underlying this approach is the understanding that the purpose of crossing the sea was not so much to separate an enslaved people from their oppressors. The critical achievement of this miracle was that during the crossing of the Red Sea each Jew experienced the hand of Gd on his frail shoulders.”
During our lives, we all cross tumultuous waters; we navigate the currents of professional challenges, financial setbacks and the suffering of love ones. And yet, if we would take the time to look back after things had calmed, we would see that the hand of Gd was on our shoulders the whole time. However, without a dramatic miracle like the parting waters, we too often don’t even notice.
Passover is the time to experience and acknowledge Gd’s unconditional love. That’s why it’s the foundation of all the holidays, of all of Judaism. Without the acknowledgment that Gd loves you enough to redeem you even when you’re not worthy, you can’t find Gd. That’s why we read today the great love poem, the Song of Songs as a metaphor of Gd’s love for us and that’s why we spent hours reciting the Haggadah. In doing so we become like an enamored lover describing every minute detail of how her beloved proposed to her.
What it all comes down to is that the more we notice and acknowledge Gd’s love for us, the more we will experience His unconditional love. As we say in the morning service: “Avinu haAv Harachaman, Our Father, merciful Father, unify our hearts to love and revere Your Name… You have chosen us from every people and tongue and have brought us near to Your great Name…so that we may thank You and declare Your Oneness with love. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who chooses His people Israel with love.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis