Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Walk Article-Bo



Rabbi David Walk


            Over the ages we Jews tend to make a big deal about miracles.  Our famous prayer inserted on the post-Biblical holidays of Purim and Chanukah is, of course, Al Hanissim, Concerning the Miracles.  And even in our Jewish pop culture, we sing about the seemingly commonplace occurrences as Wonder of Wonder and Miracle of Miracles.  These Torah readings which open the book of Exodus are really loaded with some of the most famous miracles not only in our Tanach or Bible, but in all human culture.  From the Burning Bush to the Ten Plagues to the Splitting of the Sea, we are really in the midst of miracle central.  So, it's a good time to discuss this phenomenon and, believe it or not, our discomfort with it.

            The scholar who most clearly presents this concern is Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204).   The Children of Israel did not believe in Moses solely because of the signs he presented, for someone who believes in a prophet solely because of the signs he presents is tainted, for it could be that his signs are performed by means of spells and witchcraft. All the signs that Moses performed in the wilderness were done so according to the needs of the moment, and not to bring proof to his prophecies… Therefore, if a prophet arose and performed great signs and wonders, and tells us to deny the prophecy of Moses our Teacher, we do not listen to him, and we know for sure that his signs are the result of spells and witchcraft (Mishneh Torah, Fundamentals of Torah, 8:1 & 3).  This is all based on the verse:  For these nations, which you are to possess, hearken to diviners of auspicious times and soothsayers, but as for you, the Lord, your God, has not given you things like these (Deuteronomy 18:14).  In other words, miracles, signs and wonders by themselves shouldn't sway us intellectually.  If that's so, then why did God perform all these miracles?  Again, Maimonides answers that these miracles were not to prove the existence of God, but were because the Jews were in trouble and required saving.

            All of this works well and fine for the plethora of supernatural events in our history, except for the plagues.  God told Moshe back in parshat Shemot that Pharaoh won't let the Jews go until his first born has been killed (Exodus 4:23).  In other words we only required the tenth plague to get us out of Egypt.  So, we can ask what were the other nine for?  Well, the answer seems pretty clear from the verses themselves.  Before the first plague of blood Moshe tells Pharaoh, 'Through this you shall know that I am the Lord (Exodus 7:17).,' before the fourth plague, Moshe says, 'In order that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land (8:18),' and before the seventh Moshe informs Pharaoh, 'So, that you may know that there is none like me, in the whole world (9:14).'  In case those examples aren't enough, Moshe used similar phrases seven more times.  That adds up to ten reminders that we should know God through these signs, or one for each plague.  The answer is really relatively simple.  The proof of God's power through the plagues wasn't for the Jews at all.  It was for Pharaoh and the Egyptians (sounds like a rock band).

            In truth when you look at the ten instances when the text states that the purpose of the plagues is to know God, it seems that either Pharaoh or Egypt are the students for the lesson.  However, maybe we can broaden that scope a bit.  When we get to the plague of hail, number seven in our top ten, God has Moshe make the following pronouncement:  I could have stricken you and your people with pestilence which would have effaced you from the earth, but, instead, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth (9:15-16).  On the phrase 'to show you My power' the great commentary, Rabbi Ovadya Sforno (1470-1550) commented that this is for the purpose of moving the observers to repentance.  He then quotes the famous verse:  For I have no desire that anyone shall die; repent, therefore and live (Ezekiel 18:32).  Reb Ovadya goes on to say that then there will be many who will repent and spread God's fame.  I believe that the Sforno is presenting to us another category of people who ned and respond to miracles, namely those who sinned.  

            I know that there are many stories about miracles happening throughout Jewish history for our spiritual giants.  These stories seem to be a staple of certain Jewish groups right into modern times.  I am more than skeptical.  I am philosophically against the basic premise.  We are told in many contexts not to rely on miracles (ein somchim al haneis).  I think that there have been miracles in history but that they are few and far between.  I firmly believe that God desires a world which follows the rules of nature.  Just like we lead lives which follow the rule of law.  It seems to me that the greater the Zadik, the less is the necessity for supernatural machinations.  The Zadik sees through the fabric of nature to bear witness to God's presence and influence all the time.  Avraham searched hard for God and found our Deity in the wonders of the natural order of things.

            I think that this idea is expressed in our daily prayers.  When our Sages wrote a paragraph to describe our abundant gratitude to God, they wrote that we are thankful 'for Your miracles which are with us every day; and for Your wonders and favors at all times evening, morning and midday.'  Miracles are an abrogation of the norm.  We're most thankful for the greatest wonder of all, the smooth working of the Creation all around us.  Who needs miracles, when we have God's wonderful world?