I recently traveled to Israel and on the in-flight entertainment system, I was distressed to find that the only music channel that appealed to me was the Golden Oldies. And though I thoroughly reject the idea that I’m part of that demographic, the first song to come on, as if to mock me, was a favorite of mine called The Boy in the Bubble, in which the great Paul Simon sings: “These are the days of miracle and wonder, miracle and wonder somewhere…”
And a month later, the song still stuck in my head, driving me a little bit insane, it seems an appropriate musical trope for the entire book of Sh’mot, which is filled with miracles and wonders.
In fact, in last week’s parasha, Va’era and this week’s parasha, Bo, God brings terrible, but nonetheless, miraculous and wondrous plagues onto Egypt; all of which halt at the borders of Goshen, sparing the Jews; miraculously and wondrously. And yet, it almost seems like God’s trying too hard.
Who, exactly, is he trying to impress?
The sages tell us it was necessary during that specific, historical era for God to act in a public and overwhelming fashion; to show the otherwise doubting Egyptians and even (and especially) the doubting Jews that God—and only God—is capable of suspending the laws of nature. And, with these grand and emphatic acts, God’s bona fides as an omnipotent being would be established for all people and for all time.
Perhaps. But given the vast existential problems in the world these days and the equally vast skepticism as to God’s place in the world, one has to wonder: why doesn’t God perform such miracles in our own times? Disease? ISIS? Drought? Hunger? Donald Trump? All could be gone with a single snap of God’s anthropomorphic fingers.
In that context, it’s worth considering whether our understanding of the laws of nature is sufficient to distinguish between an everyday occurrence and a miracle. If we’re so smart, how come so much that we want to know, that we need to know, remains unexplained?
What lies at the heart of romantic attraction? Why does this one get cancer and that one does not? What motivates someone to jump into the ocean to save a drowning stranger, to put on a uniform and charge into battle, to sacrifice one’s own needs for some, perceived, greater good? If we’re such brilliant scientists, where is the absolute proof of the theory of evolution? Or, who among us can refute it, absolutely? And, if the universe began with a big bang, who triggered it and what existed before that miraculous, wondrous moment?
Dating myself, once again, I’m reminded of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks 2,000-Year-Old Man routine in which Reiner asks Brooks, playing the 2,000-Year-Old Man: “did you believe in a superior being?” And Brooks replies “Yeah, a guy named Phil, the leader of our tribe. He was very big. Very strong. Big beard, big chest, big arms. I mean, he could kill you. So, we did everything he commanded.” And then Reiner asks: “how long was his reign?” To which the 2000-Year-Old Man responds: “Oh, not too long. Because one day Phil was hit by lightning. And we looked up, we said ‘There’s something bigger than Phil!'”
As it turns out, we don’t know much at all. Maybe we need to be reminded from time to time, there’s something bigger than Phil.
On the other hand, it could be that biblical miracles are overrated. Let’s not forget what happened at Sinai. The Jewish people, miraculously freed from slavery, miraculously rescued from annihilation by a sea that split for them and closed on their enemies, miraculously nourished by food that fell from the sky, couldn’t contain themselves from building a Golden Calf, even as God stood sentry for them, in a miraculous pillar of fire. One has to wonder if there was any individual miracle or series of them so impressive that might have satisfied such an entitled, apparently ADD-afflicted group.
I wonder: if God appeared to me tonight in a burning bush that did not consume itself, would it assure my faith forever, or would I require even greater miracles in the future to reinforce my loyalty? Is the burning bush really any more miraculous than the bush itself?
Whether God chooses to astonish us with the extreme act or allows the random forces of nature to dictate the circumstances that affect our lives, the world is miraculous place. And, if we’re paying attention, we can find miracles wherever we look; miracles that can fill us with gratitude and imbue us with hope; miracles that inspire poetry, such as this week’s parsha poem, entitled, simply, Miracles.
Just as it may be said that for the heretic there are no answers, so may it be
said that for the skeptic there are no miracles…
–Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
A friend, a non-believer, asks me why God no longer
performs flashy miracles, as he did in biblical times.
“Has He lost his touch? If God exists, let Him show
Himself to me in a burning bush that does not consume itself!”
What can I say? He is an old friend and I am used
to his derision, when it comes to matters of faith.
And though I believe, with complete faith, that God
appeared to Moses in that burning bush, I do not tell
my friend he is totally missing the point. The burning
bush is no more miraculous than the bush itself.
And the fire that burns but does not consume,
smolders deep within, even, the skeptic.