For the numerically challenged like me, the Pesach Haggadah has God bringing the Jews out of Egypt by three means: ‘a strong hand and an outstretched arm’ (I’m counting that as a single unit); ‘great fear’; and ‘signs and wonders’ (another single unit). The Torah itself, especially Deuteronomy, lays particular emphasis on the latter, that is, the great and terrible sights that the Israelites — not their children! — witnessed in Egypt and the wilderness.
At first glance, it seems quite straightforward. You see something amazing, a miraculous sign; you realize what it signifies; and you respond. But as anyone who peruses the international media should know, it’s not easy to respond appropriately to the great and terrible sights that pass before our eyes on a daily basis. And it’s not much easier when we see them firsthand. We look, we internalize the evidence, and we continue to cling to the convictions we already held. Or, as more often in my case, we feel dazed and confused.
The age of technology has made it extremely challenging to know how to respond to signs and wonders, great and terrible sights. But it’s not a new problem. According to Pieter Brueghel, at least as interpreted by W.H. Auden in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, the by-standers who could have seen Icarus fall out of the sky were oblivious.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Pieter Brueghel, Icarus, Musée des Beaux Arts, Brussels.
Closer to home, unless you’re reading this in Antwerp, is one of the most analyzed narratives in the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b, popularly known as ‘The Oven of Akhnai’. This was the talmudic story my late husband, Peter Lipton z”l, most loved. He recounted it once in a sermon about miracles in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, where he was a Fellow. It was customary for the Dean of Chapel and the ‘Preacher’ of the day to stand at the chapel door as the congregation left. Peter — a brilliant and compelling public speaker — was surprised to see people looking at the ground as they walked out. He understood what was wrong when someone told him that the story he’d told was ‘blasphemous’.
‘The Oven of Akhnai’ opens with several rabbis debating over whether or not a particular kind of oven can be made clean after becoming unclean. (Maybe it was Pesach!) Running out of arguments, Rabbi Eliezer brings a succession of miracles, but each time his opponents reject them.
…and this was the oven of ‘Akhnai. Why [the oven of] ‘Akhnai? — Said Rabbi Judah in Samuel’s name: [It means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean. It has been taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others say, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what business is it of yours?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.
Finally, in desperation, Rabbi Eliezer enlists God Himself, but even that doesn’t satisfy Rabbi Joshua:
Again he said to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halakhah agrees with him!’ But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said Rabbi Jeremiah: Given that the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘After the majority you must incline’.
Here’s the ‘blasphemous’ part:
Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], Elijah replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’
This story bears almost as many interpretations as have been applied to it, but one of them surely concerns the value of signs and wonders. At a word from Rabbi Eliezer, a tree walks, a river runs backwards, and the walls of the Study House almost fall down. But Rabbi Joshua and his colleagues are totally unimpressed. Like Auden’s delicate ship that must have seen something amazing, they had somewhere to get and went calmly on.
As much as we sometimes wish otherwise, signs and wonders, the great and terrible events we witness, in person or second-hand, are not in themselves revealing. They don’t tell us if an unclean oven can be made kosher, let alone when the time has come to leave Egypt, or Germany or Iraq … Why, then, were signs and wonders so central in the exodus from Egypt?
A possible answer to this question occurred to me earlier in the week, when my friends Julian and David sent me an article about an art project in Cairo. ‘Perception’ was conceived and executed by a French-Tunisian Calligraphy Graffiti artist who goes by the name of eL Seed. The Cairo project is a giant calligraphic ‘sign’ depicting the teaching of a 3rd Century CE Coptic Bishop.
EL Seed and his team of local residents spray-painted the Bishop’s words across almost 50 buildings in an area of Cairo known as Garbage Town (see the superb New Yorker article, Tales of Trash). Up close, it’s run-of-the-mill graffiti. Viewed from a particular point on a nearby hilltop, the magnificent design is revealed in its entirety, along with its inspiring message: ‘If you want to see the sunshine clearly, you have to wipe your own eyes’.
What appears chaotic and threatening when you see only bits and pieces becomes ordered and engaging when you see the whole picture. EL Seed wants his art to stimulate a similar shift in the public perception of Garbage Town itself.
To the uninitiated, the neighborhood looks like a giant refuse tip, the dumping ground for the rest of the Cairo’s rubbish. As eL Seed points out, however, its Coptic Christian residents don’t live in garbage, as people imagine, they live on it. They operate the world’s most efficient and profitable recycling system. Keep taking your bottles to the bottle bank, but don’t feel too self-righteous.
A sign can’t tell us what to believe or do, but it can help us to see the world differently. Had Auden’s ploughman looked up for long enough to empathize with Icarus’s suffering, he might have understood why his ‘failure’ was so ‘important’. Icarus dreamed of flying, and his dream almost came true; he got as far as falling out of the sky. If the ploughman had only looked up, perhaps his life would have been transformed by the fleeting encounter with someone else’s vision. At the very least, he would have stopped looking at the ground.
Likewise, the signs and wonders in Egypt, from the Nile turned to blood to the parting of the Red/Reed Sea, made our ancestors look up from their servitude for long enough to see that the world could look different, to imagine a life beyond slavery, to believe that they could be carried on wings — eagle’s wings, no less — that wouldn’t melt in the sun. Responding to the signs and wonders, looking up, comprised the crucial first step in their long journey towards a home of their own.
Pesah kasher v’sameah!