“All I need is a miracle” Parashat Yitro 5777

Parashat Beshalach contains more miracles than any other Parasha, and with a huge margin The shock and awe begins with the splitting of the Red Sea. Three days later there is no water and Moshe sweetens a pond of bitter waters by waving his staff over the pond. Then comes the manna and the quails, and finally Am Yisrael miraculously defeat the nation of Amalek when Moshe, with the help of Aharon and Hur, holds his hands over his heads, encouraging his nation to look skywards.

Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro, a Midianite Priest, has seen enough to be convinced that Hashem is “the Real Thing”, and he comes to the camp of Am, Yisrael in order to convert to Judaism [Shemot 18:1]: “Moshe’s father in law, Yitro, the Priest of Midian, heard all that Hashem had done for Moshe and for Israel, His people, that Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt.” The Talmud in Tractate Zevachim [116a] brings a disagreement as to what in particular spurred Yitro to change his life: “Rabbi Yehoshua said: He heard of the battle with the Amalekites, since this episode is immediately preceded by the [war with Amalek]. Rabbi Elazar of Modiin said: He heard of the giving of the Torah and came… Rabbi Eliezer said: He heard about the dividing of the Red Sea, and came, for it is said [Joshua 2:10] ‘For we have heard how Hashem dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt.” Let’s leave Rabbi Elazar of Modiin aside[1] and take a closer look at the remaining two opinions.

To be completely honest, I don’t understand Rabbi Yehoshua. It is well-known and well-understood that the splitting of the sea was the ultimate miracle, and for so many reasons:

  • First and foremost, the splitting of the sea and the subsequent drowning of the entire Egyptian Army completely and irreversibly ended the subjugation of Am Yisrael by the Egyptians. There would be no more slavery. Am Yisrael were truly free men.
  • The extent of the miracle was unparalleled. Not only did the sea split, but according to the Midrash water all over the world split. The laws of physics were globally altered[2]. The Torah describes global terror [Shemot 15:14-15]: “Peoples heard, they trembled; a shudder seized the inhabitants of Philistia. The chieftains of Edom were startled; the powerful men of Moab, trembling seized them; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted”.
  • Hashem was revealed at the sea in ways that were unmatched even at the revelation at Sinai. The Midrash teaches that a handmaiden saw at the sea greater revelations than the prophet Yechezkel merited seeing in his greatest visions.
  • It is the only miracle that is recalled as part of the daily prayer service.

And yet, Rabbi Yehoshua would have us believe that after the splitting of the sea Yitro said something to the effect of “Hmmm. Pretty impressive but I’m still not convinced.” It took the war against Amalek, which was a comparatively minor miracle, to convince Yitro that he definitely wanted to be on Hashem’s team. How does Rabbi Yehoshua explain Yitro’s hesitance?

This conundrum can be understood if we remember back to September 11, 2001. At the time we were living in Australia. My brother woke us up in the middle of the night to tell us that the world, as we know it, had  been destroyed. We turned on the TV and the first tower had already fallen. A few minutes after we tuned in the second tower fell. I can still remember the CNN anchor-man saying “Good L-rd. [long pause] There are no words”. And then he kept saying “Amazing”, again and again. There really were no words. It was impossible for the man in the street to get his head around the attacks, to the fact that the World Trade Center, an icon, was now rubble covering nearly three thousand souls. These things just don’t happen. The shock was reminiscent of the shock after JFK and RFK were assassinated. A good sign that people can’t get their heads around something is a large number of ensuing conspiracy theories. When the facts don’t present an answer that people can internalize, they look for an alternative answer.

On a similar note, a friend of mine was speaking with the former Minister of Finance, Dan Meridor. Meridor mentioned to him that arguments over twenty-thousand shekels could last days, while arguments over twenty-million shekels were usually be settled in a matter of minutes. It’s just too difficult to understand the significance of a number that large. For most people, twenty-million shekels is more money than they’ll earn in their lifetime. Twenty-thousand shekels, on the other hand, is something they understand. It’s half a new kitchen or a vacation for the family to Europe. Now that’s something to argue about[3].

The splitting of the Red Sea had a similar effect. It was impossible to internalize. What? The entire Egyptian Army? Dead? What happened to the water I was drinking? And was that Hashem that we saw? It wasn’t until the victory over Amalek that Yitro could make sense of what was going on. That miracle was small enough for him to internalize. And if that was Hashem, thought Yitro, then the splitting of the sea was certainly Hashem, as well. It is interesting to note that Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, combines the answers of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, explaining that it was a result of both of splitting of the sea and the victory over Amalek that spurred Yitro to join Am Yisrael. The splitting of sea was too big and the victory over Amalek was too small. The combination of the two was just right.

It is difficult for the citizens of Israel to get our heads around the existential threats that face us today. According to sources on the internet, the Hezbollah have more than one hundred and fifty thousand rockets aimed at Israel. The working assumption is that during the first two to three days of a war they will fire between four and five thousand rockets at Israel each day. Compare this to the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 in which they fired four and a half thousand rockets at Israel over six weeks. Most Israelis have no idea what kind of destruction would be wreaked on our country should the Hezbollah ever let loose with the full force of their arsenal, even with Iron Dome protecting us. Similarly, most Israelis do not understand the destruction that could be caused by one nuclear weapon launched from, say, Iran[4]. The detonation of one weapon in Tel Aviv would be devastating. It would kill more than one hundred thousand people and render much of the country uninhabitable. It would signal the end of the third Commonwealth.

Last week was a busy one from a security standpoint. Insurgents claiming allegiance to ISIS fired four Katyusha rockets into the southern vacation town of Eilat. Iron Dome intercepted three of them and the fourth fell into an uninhabited area. A lone terrorist opened fire on passers-by in a crowded Petach Tikva market with a home-made gun. Six Israelis were lightly wounded. A mortar, spill over from the war in Syria, landed in the Golan Heights. No injuries or damages were reported. It’s easy to look at how we escaped serious harm and say “Thank G-d”. But that is only the first step. Our next step must be to reflect on how Hashem has been protecting us from far more existential danger, 24/7, and how He continues to protect us every day in ways that we cannot begin to understand. May we be continue to be blessed with the verse [Tehillim 29:11] “Hashem shall grant strength to His people; Hashem shall bless His people with peace.”

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Yitro seems to arrive at the camp before the giving of the Torah at Sinai. However, there is a view that the Torah is not necessarily written in chronological order (“Ein mukdam u’meuchar baTorah”). As Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, does not bring the view of Rabbi Elazar, neither will we.

[2] My personal belief is that the freezing point of water was temporarily raised to room temperature, such that after the powerful wind slashed through the Red Sea, the physical structure of water was modified and the sea froze, as did the water in cups and bathtubs around the world. This is a topic for another shiur.

[3] Josef Stalin said “If only one man dies of hunger, that’s a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”.

[4] To get an idea, check out http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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