To celebrate Chanukah, The CJN is running a series, eight miracles for eight days. In today’s instalment, Jean M. Gerber looks at the miracle of the Jews’ escape from Egypt.
“Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles,” exulted Mottel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof.
“When Moses softened Pharaoh’s heart, that was a miracle,/ When God made the waters of the Red Sea part, that was a miracle, too.”
What was Mottel’s miracle, after all? Was it that God handed Mottel’s lover to him? Or maybe it was that her father Tevye fooled his wife into thinking that Tzeitel was destined to marry the tailor, not the butcher? Took two to make a miracle.
We seem to call whatever unexpected and good event happens to us, a miracle. We talk about the miracle of birth, although of course it is not a miracle. Holding a newborn baby is an incredible experience, but birth is not in any way outside the ordinary way that human beings arrive in this world.
So what, exactly, is a miracle? Is it “an event that apparently contradicts known scientific laws and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes”(see Webster’s dictionary), i.e. an act of God? Or is it just something wonderful and unique? Was the victory over the Greeks by the Maccabees a miracle? Was the Exodus?
Now the Exodus, that burst of liberation of the children of Israel from slavery – is that is a great example of a miracle? The Exodus, with its plagues, its bloody insistence on, well, blood on the door posts to alert the Angel of Death to leave those houses alone, the hurried gathering of simple possessions, the gold extorted from frightened Egyptian neighbours, is our foundational national story. Was it a miracle? Some, being cute, would say that it was a miracle that anyone followed Moses in the end. A midrash maintains that many Israelites stayed in Egypt rather than trail some lunatic into the desert.
However reluctant Pharaoh was to release his slaves, those same slaves were pretty reluctant to leave. They needed plenty of push and shove before they left, and forever afterward were glancing back at the fleshpots of Egypt when things in the desert got tough. To emphasize this, there are some wonderful accounts of miracles in the midrash around the Exodus.
For instance: once the Israelites get to the sea, another miracle is needed. According to midrashic tales, just as 10 plagues were needed to soften Pharaoh’s heart, 10 miracles were needed before the Israelites would set a foot in the dry seabed. Then come more miracles, including the delivery of manna (but not quails; they are seen as a natural occurrence).
In Kiddush over wine on Shabbat, in the prayers of the Shema, everywhere we can, we remember the going out from Egypt as the liberation of our people. From out of that pit of slavery and our redemption came the nation and people of Israel.
In time the Exodus saga became a rallying cry for other liberation movements. The Exodus from slavery resonated with African slaves in America: “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.” Many families now include the singing of that spiritual in their seder celebration.
With the exodus, we gave the world its first redemptive story.
When Soviet Jewry rose up and demanded the freedom to leave an oppressive, anti-Semitic U.S.S.R., in order to immigrate to Israel, what was the slogan? “Let My People Go!” The Exodus story inspired Ethiopian Jews to walk thousands of miles, risking death in order to reach present-day Israel, because they knew their ancestors had done the same.
Was the 1967 victory of Israel over combined Arab armies a miracle? Some think so, but I maintain it was the incredible preparedness of the Israeli armed forces, a great air force, and an ability to pre-empt the enemy.
Certainly the Yom Kippur war is not so regarded, although it was a victory for Israel. Too much blood was shed then for anyone to call that war a miracle. My upstairs neighbour in Israel, Arnona Pikes, would not have regarded either war a miracle: she paid for those victories with the deaths of her husband in 1967, and in 1973 with the loss of her elder son.
Now let’s come to the other subject of this column: the celebration of Chanukah with the miraculous vessel of oil, or, if you wish, the miraculous victory of the Hasmonean leaders of the Jews against the Syrian Greeks. Weak against strong, few against the many, was that a miracle?
In the case of the Maccabees, it was force of arms and luck, luck that the Greeks at home in Damascus were embroiled in civil war and could not give their full attention to Judean rebellion. Had the Greeks been stronger, there may not have been a Jewish victory. I argue that the victory of the Maccabees was no miracle in any sense. What was it? A fine example, maybe the first we have, of a guerrilla band overcoming an established, powerful and well-armed, army of occupation.
And even then, what did the rabbis consider a miracle? While in talmudic times the idea of a natural order in the way we consider it was not the way they viewed nature, to say the least, they did have a pretty good notion of what was possible and what was exceptional.
For example in Avot 5:6 some anonymous rabbinic sage(s?) decided to tidy up the number of things created at the beginning of time. Hence 10 things created at dusk on the sixth day of creation, including Miriam’s well, the mouth of Bilaam’s ass, the ram that rescued Isaac, etc. Those sages realized that there were things that stood apart from the quotidian and they hastened to find a place for them. That is, they created a way in which to account for things that, in the natural way of the world, would not have occurred.
What about the nes in “Al haNissim”, the original victory? Was it outside the natural order of things? Even in that prayer, probably created earlier than the ninth or 10th century when it first appears in a nascent siddur, no miraculous oil is mentioned. That miracle was a military victory and restoration of national independence.
In time the Hasmonean dynasty reverted to a Hellenistic style of governance, even though they did maintain traditional Temple worship. Finally their descendants fell into civil war, opening the way for Roman domination and the rule of Herod. The rabbis realized this, and began looking for ways to move the victory from human hands to God’s intervention on their behalf. Hence the oil.
Let us now compare the two events under consideration: the Exodus from Egypt as our foundational national story, and the Chanukah celebration of a rededicated Temple by the Hasmoneans.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in discussing miracles puts the burden on us to experience radical amazement when encountering the world of the spiritual. Certainly Rabbi Heschel was well aware of the laws that govern the natural world. He was not so interested in those, however, but in our inner world where we can encounter a power beyond that physical world, where we can experience the miracle of the ineffable.
While in no way denigrating the Exodus account, or other wonders and signs in the biblical accounts, Rabbi Heschel argues that we miss the point if we make a sharp distinction between the one-off miracle and the wonder we should feel on a daily basis. In God in Search of Man Rabbi Heschel quotes (referencing Seder Eliyahu Rabba) “Every day miracles such as those that occurred at the Exodus come upon man; every day he experiences redemption, like those who went forth from Egypt…” He goes on to say that “all things and all events in the life of the individual as well as in the life of society are miracles.”
With the Exodus, we gave the world its first redemptive story. There would have been no redemption from Egypt if everyone had just stayed put, afraid of the unknown and the challenge to power. That is the great power of liberation – something we are offered, something we need to grasp.
On one hand, people saw, still see, moments in the life of the nation as miraculous, beyond the natural order of things, beyond our own abilities. On the other, we have a continuous chance to redeem society when we combat injustice, without the aid of miraculous intervention. Both take our energies as individuals and as a community.
The Hellenizers of the Judean government in third century BCE would have managed nicely to subsume the Judean commonwealth into the larger Hellenistic world if nobody had answered the call of the Maccabees. Chanukah is a great story of human initiative. But it cannot hold a candle (ha!) to the drama of the Exodus, God and the Jewish People working together. Miraculous!
Remember Mottel and his miracle? Miracles take two. All the miracles in the world would not have created the Exodus if no one left Egypt. We are so fortunate to have both stories, both holidays, and all the days in between, to ponder the meaning of miraculous.