Jewish learning No More Miracles
In our early days of courting in New York City, my wife and I would take turns planning mini-adventures. One day, we’d take the ferry to Staten Island, standing on its deck, mist in our faces. The next, we’d walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and discover a local shop with homemade ice cream. Each date was an opportunity to dazzle the other person, to present them with an offering in the form of a new experience.
In the first stages of God’s relationship with Bnei Yisrael, God also sought to dazzle them. God presented Bnei Yisrael with a series of wonders and miracles, each one an offering—an attempt to bring us into our relationship and take a step together toward intimacy. In Moshe’s very first encounter with God—itself nothing short of miraculous—Moshe asks God, “But, what if [Bnei Yisrael] don’t believe me? What if they don’t listen to me and say, ‘God did not appear to you’?” (Exodus 4:1). God’s answer to Moshe? Miracles. Just as God’s relationship with Moshe began with a miracle, so too God’s relationship with Bnei Yisrael will begin with the miraculous.
From bushes that burn, rods that transform into snakes, and rivers that run to blood, the beginnings of Moshe’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with Bnei Yisrael are built upon miracles.
But miracles work not only as the flame that ignites the relationship; they are also the fuel that keeps Bnei Yisrael going when they get discouraged. Soon after leaving Egypt, with several more miracles under their belts (a sea split in two, a piece of wood that transforms water from bitter to sweet, a sky that rains down manna), Bnei Yisrael once again lose faith in God. Thirsty and without water, the people turn on Moshe (again) and complain, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). God instructs Moshe to take the very same rod that transformed the Nile to blood, and use it to strike a rock to release fresh water. Sure enough—the miracle works, the rock releases water, and the people’s faith in God is restored.
Without these wonders that defy the laws of nature, there would be no relationship between God and Bnei Yisrael. It is the performance of yet another miracle, a grand gesture that goes above and beyond, that secures our faith and keeps us tethered to God.
But these miracles cannot sustain a relationship forever. Once Bnei Yisrael get into the land, things will need to shift. They will move from a people completely dependent on God’s miracles to one more empowered to shape their own destiny, in which God’s hand is less evident.
R. Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen teaches that, until their entry into the Promised Land, the people “did not need a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:3). Until now, the people only needed to experience God’s miracles. R. Meir teaches that in the presence of God’s miracles, there is no thinking or discerning required on the part of Bnei Yisrael. They simply needed to follow God. It is only once they enter the Land—and God’s presence, as manifested through those overt miracles, ceases—that the real reckoning and the work of deeper relationship begins.
R. Meir writes, “The point of having their affairs managed in a miraculous fashion was to implant in their hearts the fundamentals of the religion…points that would serve as the basis for leading the nation until this day… All the while your affairs are being conducted in a miraculous fashion, you have not reached the desired end state, for you do not need ‘a mind to understand or eyes to see.’”
I am sometimes disappointed to live at a time when nature-defying miracles have ceased and God’s presence is not clearly apparent. I even wonder at times if this is not perhaps a result of a failure on our part—perhaps as some kind of punishment. But, according to R. Meir, the goal is to live without overt miracles—to get to a place where we can be in relationship with God, a relationship rooted in trust and faith, that is not conditional on the performance of nature-defying miracles. So long as we rely on those interventions to believe in God, we haven’t yet reached the pinnacle of our relationship with God.
Like Bnei Yisrael entering the next stage of relationship with God, we, too, have to look more closely to find God’s presence in the world. In the absence of manna falling daily from the sky, we need to cultivate “a mind that understands, eyes that see, and ears that hear.” If we cannot find God in the grand miracles of the Bible, we may have to look for God in the small, everyday common miracles. And, if we cannot rely on the undeniable proof of God that comes from split seas and magical manna, when we find ourselves in doubt, we may need to lean into faith.
If I’m being entirely honest, I miss the days of exciting new adventures, of dates that dazzled with newness and discovery. But, as foundational as those experiences were to my then-budding relationship with my wife, a mature relationship cannot be conditional on frequent grand, larger-than-life experiences. A relationship has to have space for the everyday, for the many dirty diapers changed, late night dishes washed, laundry sleepily folded. There will need to be grander moments as well, of course, where we go above and beyond for each other in undeniable displays of love. But, in between those, we need to cultivate “eyes that see” the small gestures of love, and “ears that hear” the offerings in the day-to-day of our relationships.
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Rabbi Avi Strausberg is the Senior Director of National Learning Initiatives at Hadar, and is based in Washington, DC. She received her rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in Boston and is a Wexner Graduate Fellow.