Mordechai Soskil

Speaking of Miracles

In many ways the main mitzvah of the Seder is to tell the story of the Exodus. Yes, we eat matzah, and yes, we drink wine, and yes to all the customs and rules and all of that.  Yet, from a certain perspective, all of these moments are in service to our telling the story. We start with the bad times, we end with the good times. We have questions and answers, and we try to feel like we were really there during the times of slavery and were really there when we marched out, saved, proud, and so obviously beloved by the Creator. 

From time to time, a student will ask me why it is that in olden times there were so many miracles and nowadays, we don’t have miracles like that. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to have faith and keep the mitzvot if we had miracles in our time as well? 

I once had an opportunity to ask this question to one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshiva in Silver Spring. (We happened to be at a wedding together and my favorite thing to do at weddings is speak to rabbis.) Rabbi Lopiansky answered the question by comparing the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem to a relationship between spouses. During the courtship phase and early in the marriage, there is a need to constantly show acts that prove our love and care. But at a certain point, if one spouse constantly needs those types of acts, there is a problem, right? I mean we still do acts of love, but at the beginning of the relationship or marriage, it’s much more necessary, more urgent. Rabbi Lopiansky said it’s like this with miracles too. At the beginning of the relationship, we had open miracles like the Splitting of the Sea and the Revelation at Sinai, and all stories in Chumash. But now, we have been in a relationship for so many years and we should be able to trust confidently in that love without it needing to be proven. 

The Gemorah says that, רוצה אדם בקב שלו מתשעה קבין של חבירו, a person would like to have one measure of produce he created, rather than 9 measures that were made by someone else. So, I guess, even though Rabbi Lopiansky’s answer stands on its own, I wanted to mention my own thought too. It seems to me that the answer isn’t that there were more miracles then and there are fewer now. It’s that we are just really bad at seeing miracles.  

Let me ask you a question. If I told you that there was a group of refugees that were not accepted into their new host nation, so they turned to petty crime and prostitution to make a living, would you believe that was possible? Let’s say I told you that the refugees were also subject to religious persecution based on generations of lies about their ritual worship. Would you believe me if I told you that these people turned to violence? Let’s say I told you that the refugees that were also the subject of religious persecution and social exclusion, known to be violent, prone to petty crime, had extremely high levels of alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic violence. Would that be believable? 

I suggest it would not only be believable, it’s what we would predict.   

Let’s say I told you that a group of refugees, who were also the victims of generations of religious persecution, actually experienced much lower rates of domestic violence, alcoholism and drug addiction than the population at large? You might think that was pretty remarkable. What if I told you that the same group of persecuted refugees had a much lower rate of violent crime and rape compared to the general population? Would you believe it? What if I told you that same group of shunned, excluded, persecuted refugees accounted for 20% of all the Nobel Prize winners? You might almost think that miraculous.    

Here’s the thing about miracles; I wonder if we know what they look like. In the Torah you have Hashem’s narrative telling us what happened. That’s the real truth of what happened. Imagine you were just some Egyptian gal enjoying a beautiful spring day by the Nile with your friends, and then the water turned to blood – would you have realized what was happening? You might realize that those slave people had some kind of cure for bloodatocis of the water, but would you have realized it was a miracle? Did the Jewish people even understand what they were experiencing?   

I wonder if the truth is there were very, very few miracles in the Jewish people’s experience that were “huge, amazing, eyes falling out of the head, brain explodes” miracles. There was the splitting of the sea and the revelation at Sinai, yes. But other than that, I don’t get the impression that in the moment the Jewish people really understood the MIRACLE involved any more than you and I understand the miracle of the survival and THRIVING of the Jewish people beyond all comprehension. 

Especially when you consider that when things are in the middle, they aren’t done yet.  

This is an idea that my daughter Shira was speaking about recently, so I think it’s worth giving her the credit for it (even though I think the idea came from one of her mentors – Mrs. Chana Grove.) When things were “in the middle”, when it was a Tuesday afternoon in weeks before, say, the Plague of Frogs, and the Plague of Lice, when no one, not even Moshe, knew how long this was going to take and freedom didn’t feel at all like it was right around the corner, when it was just the middle, did people really recognize the miracle of it all? Was that only in the end that they were able to look back and see how the dots connected? Especially when you realize that the tradition of the sages is that most of the Children of Israel DID NOT want to leave Egypt and died during the Plague of Darkness, it highlights this thought. I don’t think the problem is that there were miracles then and there aren’t now. I think the problem is that both then, and now, we don’t understand what we’re looking for when we look for miracles. And we also overestimate their impact on our behavior.  

Over the weekend, hundreds and hundreds of bombs and missiles were fired at Israel from Iran. No deaths. No injuries. A couple of big potholes in the Negev. Now, I’m not saying this was a miracle like the Crossing of the Sea. I’m saying it was a miracle like Chanukah or Purim. In the miracle at the sea, everything was done by Hashem and the Jewish people were the objects, not the subjects of that neis. But in the times of Chanukah, a lot of people worked really hard for those miracles. In the times of Esther and Mordechai, besides the machinations and the Divine interventions in the palace, there was also a battle. These were miracles that people worked hard for, but we still call them miracles. People worked really hard for the miracles of this Saturday night. Engineers, pilots, radar technicians, statesmen and politicians, and many, many others. A LOT OF PEOPLE WORKED HARD FOR THOSE MIRACLES. 

Very soon we’ll all be sitting down to talk about the miracles of the Exodus. We’ll complain that the matzah this year is too thick or too thin and “well done.” We’ll bang on the table as the noxious fumes of freshly grated horseradish burn through our sinus, and we’ll like it. We’ll all sing Dayeinu badly but enthusiastically, and we’ll remember seders of the past and imagine seders of the future. And we might even think, that’s it’s a bit unfair, because if we lived at the time of plagues on our enemies and miraculous salvation, then it would be so much easier to be faithful. 

Maybe we’ve arrived at a new understanding of seder for this year. Maybe retelling all the miracles of then can help us see all the miracles of now. Maybe when we say, “Next year in Jerusalem” we’ll recognize that if that’s the end, then this is the middle. And even though from the middle it’s hard to tell, if we open our eyes just a bit, we can see that the miracles of redemption are all around us, even right now. 

Some Pesach blogs from previous years that might catch your attention:

An Open Letter to the Wise Son

An Open Letter to the Wicked Son

How to Make Your Seder Not Lame

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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