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Beshalach | The Dubious Powers of Miracles

Rav Alex Israel




          This is another grand parasha in which we witness a series of impressive miraculous events.  We first read of the magnificent spectacle of the crossing of the Red Sea [1].  Next is the episode at Mara, when the bitter waters turned sweet for the thirsty throngs of Israel (15:25).  The account of the Manna follows on from that.  It tells the story of the miracle food that began to fall around the camp on a daily basis.  The parasha ends with two further miracles.  Moses produced a supply of water for the Israelites by hitting a rock, water gushing forth from the stone.  And then came the war of Amalek.  In this battle, the position of Moses' hands seemed to somehow secure defeat or failure.  So, all in all, we have miracle after miracle - a rather impressive group of supernatural phenomena.




            Where was all this to lead?  What was the effect of these miracles upon the people?  Popular wisdom has it that these wonders generated a steadfast belief in God.  This theory is born out by the verses themselves.  A good example would be the events of the splitting of the Red Sea.  The reaction of the nation is one of faith: "They had faith in the Lord and in His servant Moses" (14:31).  This feeling is also reflected in the jubilant song of victory and praise sang by the Children of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea:


"I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea

The Lord is my strength and might,

He is my deliverance. 

This is my God and I will glorify Him,

The God of my father, and I will exalt Him" (15:1-2).


     Rashi, examining the language of the song, notes the phrase, "Zeh Eli" - "This is my God."  According to tradition, each and every usage of this word, "Zeh" indicates a visual image, an object to which one can point [2].  Here too, Rashi suggests that the people actually witnessed a revelation of God.


"This is my God: In His fullest glory, God presented Himself to them openly, so that they could point at Him with their finger!  A simple handmaid at the sea saw greater visions than the prophets" (Rashi on 15:2).


     So these miracles were deliberately enacted so as to engender a more tangible sense of God.  After these miracles, the Israelites would feel that they had a clear and very real perception of their deity.


     The Ramban - Nachmanides - the 12th century scholar, was certainly of this belief.  He looks at the miracles of the Exodus in the following way:


I will now state a general principle which lies at the foundation of many mitzvot (commandments). 


Since the introduction of idolatry into the world ... the attitudes of people, as regards matters of faith, have become confused and have diverged from the true beliefs.  Some people believe that the world has been in existence eternally with no creation ...  others feel that God exists but that He does not know the deeds of man .... and that there is no reward nor punishment.  They say (Ezekiel 8:20) "God has departed from the earth."


    When God performs a miracle in the sight of a desirable collective or individual - a miracle which will affect a change in the laws of nature - these (false) attitudes of faith will be disproved in the clearest way.  For the miracle demonstrates God's mastery over the world: His creation of it, and His knowledge of, and involvement in its affairs.  Additionally, when a particular miracle is  preceded by a prophetic announcement, the existence of prophecy - that God speaks with man and tells him his secrets - will be proven and this in turn will prove the truth of the entire Torah.


     According to the Ramban, a miracle manages to transform certain philosophical truths into reality.  The person who experiences the miracle will be convinced in the most powerful manners; of the existence of God, his involvement in the affairs of men and His ability to reward and punish.  The Ramban feels that this was the purpose of the plagues. 


We might put it in this context.  Why does God want to perform miracle after miracle for the Israelites?  The children of Israel are at a fundamental nexus in their development.  They are at the birth of their nationhood.  They have had the foundation period of the forefathers.  They have grown in size, but have been enslaved, in exile.  Now is the moment that they are to emerge as an independent entity, as a nation  who can control its own affairs.  God wants this nation to be born in an atmosphere of faith.  It is essential that the Jewish nation enter the stage of nationhood with the existence of God in the forefront of their minds.




However, a closer look at our parasha would seem to demonstrate precisely the opposite phenomena.  Despite the miracles, the Children of Israel seem to complain to God at each and every occasion possible.


At the sight of the Egyptian army chasing them:


    As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them.  Greatly frightened the Israelites cried out to the Lord ... "Was it for want of graves in Egypt that You brought us to die in the wilderness?  What have You done to us, taking us out of Egypt? ..." (14:10-11).


This complaint is after the ten plagues, after the night of the death of the firstborn.  Later, when there is no food:


... the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron ... "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!  For You have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death" (16:3).


And when the water runs out:


The place was named "Massa U-meriva" because the Israelites ...  tried the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord present amongst us or not?" (17:7).


If miracles are supposed to create such a firm faith, then how is it that despite the miracles which surround them and characterize their wilderness environment, they can still deny God.  They have seen the miracles of Egypt, and the splitting of the Read Sea, the daily manna is their food.  How can they doubt God's presence? The problem becomes even more acute when we remember that just forty days after the impressive revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Children of Israel were dancing around the Golden Calf!


These observations are indeed in place.  In the words of the famous thinker and provocateur - Yeshayahu Leibowitz:


We learn from parashat Beshalach a greatly important lesson: The "miracle," revelation itself and even the man inspired to sing to God in response to a miracle of revelations; all these are but a passing fad which has no long-lasting influence on future events.  It is not the song of life that persists, but the prose of life. 


... Miracles and all other supernatural events are revealed as irrelevant from a religious perspective, or at the very least, we can say that they are ineffective in forming a basis for religious faith.  The generation that witnessed the miracles and wonders did not believe!  If we do say, "They had faith in the Lord and in His servant Moses" (14:31), it was faith of the moment for the fleeting moment that they experienced the feeling of victory.  But afterwards, it was all gone" (Comments on the Weekly Parsha pg. 48).


So what is the place of a miracle?  Are we forced to debunk the miracles of the Bible as complete failures?




If we think it through, we will notice that the phenomenon of the earth-shattering miracle comes to an end at Mt. Sinai.  After this, there are still certain supernatural events - those which provide the nation with their food and water; however, we shall not see the impressive grand spectacles that we have seen until this point.  The "mighty hand" and the "outstretched arm" of the Exodus are superseded.  By what?  By the word of God, by His Torah.  In fact, we can almost talk of God leading the Children of Israel according to one of two methods - the leadership of the "mighty hand and the outstretched arm" on the one hand, and the leadership of the "word of God" on the other.  Let us investigate this theory.


The Exodus is to be remembered by the nation of Israel in the following way:


Moses said to the people, Remember this day, on which you went free in Egypt ... how the Lord has freed you with a mighty hand (13:2-3).


     This phrase - God's mighty hand - is repeated many times in connection with the Exodus experience (see 3:19, 6:1, 13:9,16 Deut. 7:19, 11:3 and more).  It denotes God's unlimited power and His ability to free His people in a decisive, devastating and swift manner.  God demonstrates His "mighty hand" by His "signs and wonders" [3].  These are impressive actions which talk to the minds of those around, showing them God's power.


The symbol of this mode of God's leadership is Moses' staff.  It is with this staff that Moses is first given "signs" to prove his authenticity to the nation.


Moses said, What if they do not believe me and say "The Lord did not appear to you?"  The Lord said to him, "What is that in your hand?"  And he replied, "a rod."  He said, "Cast it on the ground."  He cast it on the ground and it became a snake ... he put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod again in his hand - that they may believe that the Lord ... did appear to you" (4:1-5).


     This rod or staff is waved over the River Nile turning it into blood.  It enacts most of the ten plagues.  It is this staff which when lifted up over the waters of the Red Sea, will split the waters (14:16).  This rod strikes a stone and water bursts forth.  It is this staff which is taken to the war of Amalek and is described as "the staff of God" (17:10).  This staff in the hands of Moses would seem to possess the most enormous power. 


After Mt. Sinai, this staff was put into storage [4].  The miracles cease, and the new recurrent phrase is unrelated to signs, wonders, miracles or rods.  The primary phrase of the Torah in the aftermath of Sinai is:


And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying ...


Moses' role as miracle maker is to be superseded by his role as the lawgiver and teacher.  Moses is referred to by generations of Jews as "Moses our teacher" - "Moshe Rabbeinu" and by no other title.  His teaching role became our primary memory of him.  It is the Torah that defines him, not the miracles.




Our theory can be borne out if we list the commandments that we were given prior to Mt. Sinai.  What commandments (mitzvot) were given over to the Israelites? We have Passover (12:14-20, 13:3-8), the command of tefillin (13:9), mila (12:48), and Shabbat (16:22-29).  All of these laws are described with the title of "ot," meaning that these very laws constitute some form of testimonial function.  These laws are "signs."


Tefillin: "It shall be a SIGN on your hand and frontlets between your eyes."

Berit Mila: "This shall be the SIGN of my covenant between Me and you" (Bereishit 17:12).

Shabbat: "Between me and the Children of Israel it is a SIGN forever" (31:17).

Pesach: "It shall be a SIGN on your arm and a memory between your eyes, ...  that God took you out of Egypt with a strong hand" (13:9).


This is the pre-Sinai world.  But the minute we reach Mt. Sinai:


You saw that which I did to Egypt, and I brought you forth on eagles' wings to Me.  Now if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant ... (19:4-5).

And God spoke all these WORDS (20:1).


     The wondrous acts have been replaced by speech, by words.  In the chapters of the revelation of Mt.  Sinai, the word "devarim" and the verb "DBR" indicating speech and verbal communication, are repeated time after time.  In fact, Moses intimates that this was the ONLY really important aspect of the revelation at Sinai:


"God spoke to you out of fire.  You heard the sound of WORDS; you saw no image; nothing but a voice (Deut. 4:12).




Maybe one of the clearest demonstrations of the change which occurs at Mt. Sinai is the process of initiation for a prophet.  Any reader of the book of Exodus would be in no doubt that to prove one's prophecy as authentic a miracle would be required.  That is how Moses proves himself, and we could easily suggest that each and every prophet should be considered with a certain element of suspicion unless he can come up with a few supernatural signs.


The Torah rejects this.  In Deuteronomy ch. 13 it is the false prophet who delivers "sins and wonders."


"If there appears among you a prophet, or dream-diviner, and he gives you a sign or wonder saying, "Let us follow and worship another God" ... even if the sign or wonder comes true do not heed the words of that prophet ... Follow none but the Lord your God ... observe His commandments alone and heed only His orders" (Deut. 13:2-6).


Miracles and wonders bear no truth.  They cannot prove the authenticity of a prophet.  Rather, the true prophet is described as the continuation of the experience at Mt. Sinai:


The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from your own people ... him you shall heed.  This is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assemble, saying "Let me not hear the voice of the Lord my God any longer ... lest I die."  Whereupon the Lord said .. "I will raise up a prophet for them ... I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him" (Deut. 18:15-22).


To summarize what we have said thus far: The miracles of the Exodus were immensely impressive.  They secured faith in the eyes of the people, but that faith was somewhat short-lived.  People left their inspired "high," and returned to their everyday routine, and the miracle was a fond memory, but it could not impact their lives.  It could not break into the daily bustle.  That role was taken by the Torah.  The Torah with its 613 laws applicable to every human activity, the periodic and the regular, has the power to pierce the tough shell of our lives.  The Torah - no more than the word of God - has the potential to transform our lives, elevating and inspiring them throughout the prosaic tasks of daily living.


It is possible that the miracles were necessary for a slave nation.  Maybe they needed the impressive spectacle, the euphoria and exhilaration, to give them the self-confidence and the inspiration to carry on.  They might have wished to relax, to take it easy and enjoy their freedom.  God wanted them to harness their freedom to make their lives better.  To this end, maybe the miracles were necessary in energizing the Israelites to take their first steps in faith, in nationhood.  But this is not a long term plan.  The miracles are leading to something.  That something is the Torah [5].




Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds.  They went on to the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water.  They came to Mara, but they could not drink water from Mara because it (they) were bitter; that is why it was named Mara.  And the people grumbled against Moses saying "What shall we drink?"  He cried to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree. He threw it into the water and the water became sweet.  THERE HE SET FOR THEM STATUTE AND JUDGEMENT and there he put them to the test.  He said "If you listen well to the voice of the Lord your God, doing what is upright in his sight, giving ear to his commandments and keeping all his laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians for I the Lord am your healer" (Exodus 15:22-26).


A strange story.  A thirsty nation, bitter waters, a "magic" tree, statutes and judgements, the diseases of Egypt - what is happening here?


This is the first time that the people "grumble."  It would seem that they are somewhat justified in their complaint! They have been travelling for three days in the desert.  We can be sure that any water supplies that they brought with them have been consumed.  Can we expect them to be silent?  Not even to put in a request?


Interestingly enough, we see no anger here, not on the part of Moses nor from God.  It would appear that God accepts the request as legitimate and provides a solution to the water shortage.  But this doesn't really get to the bottom of the issue.  If one looks closely, this episode seems to have a second less obvious theme.  It is the teaching of "statute and commandment" and the promises about listening to God and obeying his command.  How does the water story and this emphasis on God's law and the Children of Israel's acceptance of it become a single story?


The RASHBAM (15:25) puts it in the following way:


There He set for them statute and judgement and there He put them to the test: There at Mara, through the fabrication of a test - God made them thirst for water and then 'healed' the water for them - He began to demonstrate to them, that if they will keep the statutes and judgements which He will teach, He will provide their needs.


The Rashbam notes an important side of this event.  It is all a set-up by God!  He led them on a route on which there would be no water, he guided them to the bitter "mara" waters and then he "healed" the waters making them fit for human consumption.  Why is God doing this?  The Rashbam explains that God is teaching the Jewish people the most basic of lessons.  That the national fortune of this people is tied up with their adherence to the word of God.  This lesson is one of the central themes of the Bible.  God shows them how He can provide for their basic necessities and  - at precisely the same time - begins to talk about Torah and a new way of life.  The verse tells us that they were taught "statute and judgements."  According to RASHI, it was here that God presented Israel with their first commandments.




If  we are reading this episode correctly, we begin to realize that our parasha is the transition stage between God's miraculous leadership - the "mighty hand" of God - and the introduction of "the word of God."  It is in this episode that we begin to see an overlap.  Miraculous happenings and actual teaching of statutes.  If we are correct in our thinking, we might dare to say that our parasha describes one of the most important spiritual journeys ever taken by man.  It is the process whereby we emerged from the world of miracles to find a voice of religious teaching.  It is the process which created the Torah and the Jewish people.


Shabbat Shalom.






[1]  There is an entire literature about the possible location, and method of this miracle.  Which sea did they cross?  Or was it simply a swamp which was relatively easy to cross?  To my mind, all the discussions are academic and irrelevant for our purposes.  However, one wishes to explain the details of this happening, it is clear that a sea turned into dry land just at the moment that the Israelites needed to cross.  Its reversion back to its former state drowned the Egyptian army.  That is pretty miraculous!

[2]  Other examples would be Exodus/Shemot 12:1, Numbers/Bamidbar 8:4.  See Rashi in both instances.

[3] It is interesting to note that the "sign" or "ot" in Hebrew is always directed at the Israelites, whereas, the "wonder" - "mofet" - maybe better translated as "proof" is directed at the non-believing Egyptians.  (Check this out through the language of the verses themselves.  Compare 4:7-8 - the "ot" - with 6:9 - the "mofet."  Or see the precise language of 4:21 directed at Pharaoh compared with 4:30 directed at the Children of Israel.)

[4] See Bamidbar 19:9.

[5] Rav Yoel bin Nun once noted that just as the "Song at the Sea" - shirat ha-yam -concludes the section of J, History which is inspired by God's leadership in the mode of might and wonder, the song of "Ha'azinu" at the end of Devarim, closes the verbal leadership mode of Torah and speech.  The first is a song of jubilant unexpected military victory.  The second is a pensive look at the inner workings of Jewish history dependent on the adherence of the Children of Israel to God and his Torah.


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