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Parashat Va’era 5773 — 01/09/2013

Parashat Va’era 5773 — 01/09/2013

Hide and Seek

For now I could have sent My hand and stricken you and your people with the pestilence and you would have been obliterated from the earth.  However for this have I let you endure, in order to show you My strength and so that My Name may be  declared throughout the world.  (9:15-16)

The reason this Name (Kel Shakai) is mentioned here [Gen 17:1] is that it is through [this Name] that hidden miracles occur for the righteous … like all the miracles that were performed for Abraham and for the other Patriarchs, which are hidden miracles,… For it is not natural that the rains should come in their proper time when we serve Gd, nor that the heavens should be dry as iron when we sow crops in the Seventh Year, and similarly for all such promises found in the Torah. Rather, all these are miracles, and in all these cases the control of the array of constellations is overpowered by Gd, except that there is no noticeable change from the natural course of the world in these miracles, as there is, for example, in the miracles performed through Moses our teacher in the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, the manna, the Well of water in the Wilderness, and others like these, which were wonders that changed nature in an obvious manner. Those open miracles are brought about through the Unique Name of Gd (YKVK) which [Gd] told Moses].  (Ramban to Gen 17:1)

It’s become almost a cliché nowadays to declare “ordinary” things miraculous.  An obvious example is the birth of a child; a less obvious example is the child growing up and maturing and eventually graduating from medical school <g>.  But the truth is, an Ramban indicates, that all these things, not to mention every breath we take and all the variegated forms and phenomena that we see around us, really are as miraculous as the splitting of the Sea.  It’s just our evaluation that differs – on the one side we have common events that appear to follow a natural course, and on the other we have one-off events where the laws of nature appear to be grossly violated.  What is the significance of this apparent duality?

I’d like to suggest that both “hidden” miracles and “open” miracles serve the same purpose – the expansion of our awareness of Gd and of Gd’s moral order in the universe.  The only question is the level of awareness of the recipients of the message.

When Moshe and Aharon first approach Pharaoh and demand, in Hashem’s name that he release the Jews to serve Hashem in the desert, Pharaoh’s reaction is “I don’t know Hashem and you haven’t given me any reason to obey Him.”  Now Pharaoh and the Egyptians were not buffoons, nor were they unsophisticated or terribly, innately stubborn.  They obviously had some substantial technology that allowed them to control the laws of nature on subtle levels; Torah testifies to this fact and the Egyptians have left us the artifacts to support this contention.  Nonetheless, in much the same way as we are enamored of our technology and tend to seek technological solutions for any and all problems, no matter what the side effects may be, so the Egyptians were apparently enamored of their technology.  Unfortunately, in both cases the societies cannot see past the technology to the Source of the technology, the Source of the laws of nature.  For such people, it takes a lot more impressive display of Gd’s power to “wake them up” to the reality beyond technology.  In addition, the wake-up call must be such that it will get the recipients’ attention.  Unfortunately, pain is often the only thing that really gets someone’s attention, and so it was with Pharaoh, as our quote from the Parashah indicates.

Contrast this with the Patriarchs.  At the beginning of our Parashah Gd tells Moshe that the Patriarchs did not need such drastic measures for their knowledge and perception of Gd to be full.  Indeed, Rashi takes the first few verses of the Parashah to be a rebuke of Moshe Rabbeinu – see how the Patriarchs didn’t need to know My explicit Name, nor did they live to see the fulfillment of My promise to them that they would become a great nation and inherit the Land of Israel, but they were nonetheless faithful and never complained.  (According to the Midrash, Moshe got a pass on his complaints, because really he was complaining on behalf of the people, whose servitude had just gotten much worse.  The complaints were justified; the language was not.)  In other words, according to Ramban’s analysis, they were “satisfied” with hidden miracles – they were able to see Gd’s presence in every grain of sand.

Who is greater – the one who can see hidden miracles, or the one for whom Gd performs open miracles?  The Talmud (Shabbat 53b) speaks of a man whose wife died in childbirth, leaving him with an infant who needed a wet nurse.  The man was very poor and couldn’t afford to hire a wet nurse, so a miracle was done for him – he grew breasts and nursed his son himself.  R. Yosef said, “See what a great man this was, for a miracle was done for him.”  Abaye retorted, “On the contrary, see how lowly this man was, that [Gd] had to change nature (lit. the order of creation) for him.”

It appears that the Talmud is telling us that the more open and obvious the miracle, the lower the level of the person receiving the “lesson” the miracle is intended to convey.  Thus our hapless widower could have found money on the street that would have allowed him to pay the wet nurse.  Even better, he might have gotten a better job, or a raise in pay.  Apparently he was of the mind to write these things off as “nature.”  People get raises or change jobs all the time.  People find money on the street – it’s much more rare, but it happens.  People win the lottery too.  If we can see Gd’s Hand guiding nature to give us such an outcome, then that’s all the miracle we need!  It’s only when we’ve blinded ourselves to Gd’s loving presence in the world, and in our individual lives, that a man has to grow breasts to feed his baby!

Our tradition describes the kind of times we live in as a time of hester panim, Gd’s “hiding His face” from us.  This is certainly our experience.  We no longer find open miracles; if Israel defeats three much larger nations in a mere 6 days, all we see is superior morale, better training, the element of surprise, the enemy’s arrogance – we try to explain everything away without Gd’s influence or participation.  In Laplace’s words: I had no need of that hypothesis.  (For interesting details see the Wikipedia article:  In fact, despite the cliché I mentioned at the beginning, we do not even see the hidden miracles that are all around us.  Just as the miracles are hidden, Gd is, as it were, hidden.

Why does Gd hide Himself?  I don’t know the answer to this very fundamental question – it has been debated throughout the ages by far better scholars and by people far more spiritually awake than me.  What we do know is that Gd has given each of us free will, so that whatever spiritual gains we make will be earned, rather than just handouts.  Consider Pharaoh – Gd strengthened his heart (in the last 5 plagues at least) so that his decision to let Israel leave or not would be based on his uncoerced will, not out of defeat by force majeure.  Were we to be overwhelmed with open miracles, would our belief in Gd be based on our own free will, or on His overwhelming presence?  If Gd were to reveal Himself, could we even withstand the experience?  Those who stood at Mt. Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments begged Moshe Rabbeinu to be an intermediary, lest they perish from the experience.  And a contemporary wise man once said “It is Gd’s mercy that He doesn’t reveal Himself.”

Since we are not graced, or challenged, with sweeping open miracles like the plagues of Egypt or the splitting of the Sea, our job is truly to see the hidden miracles that surround us.  We need to focus our attention, even if just intellectually at first, on the fact of Gd’s existence, His Unity, His infinity, and His intimate connection with each and every one of us.  In this way we may, hopefully, “coax” Gd out of hiding, and all the hidden miracles of life and of existence will become an open book to each of us.