Explaining the Seder
How am I, a believing Jew raised in a world of scientific culture, to speak to my grandchildren, about miracles? They who are taught to explain events in terms of natural cause and effect, how are they to understand the record of speaking serpents and donkeys, rivers turned into blood and frogs, seas split? They ask at different stages of their life, "Did it really happen'? Could it really happen?" And I am caught between affirmation and denial of a literal proposition.
I remember one of my Hebrew school teachers putting us to the test: either the prophet spoke the truth or he was a liar. Faced with such either/or options, we are forced into the affirmation of fundamentalist literalism or the negations of literal scientism. The story either happened or did not happen; miracles are real or imaginary. It is an uncomfortable choice which turns us into naive fideists or sour atheists.
There are large segments of the rabbinic tradition that relieve me from the double bind. The tradition enjoys a healthy skepticism, the incredulity of the pious. Here, for example, we read in the Bible of Aaron and Hur on top of a hill, holding aloft Moses' tired arms during the battle between Amalek and the children of Israel: "When Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed" (Exodus 17:11). There it is, a miracle of divine intervention, plain and simple. But the rabbis cannot abide such a literal interpretation. "Did the position of Moses' arms determine the outcome of the battle? To them it smacks of magical legerdemain. No, they insist, what the Bible means to inform us is that when Israel raised its eyes heavenwards, they were inspired to victory, and when they cast their- eyes downwards, they were defeated. The rabbis transformed a literal account of a miraculous intervention into a metaphoric narration of faith. The biblical story is not evidence of God's triumph over the laws of nature but an account of the natural power of faith over adversity.
We meet at parallel rabbinic deflation of a supernatural miracle in the Book of Numbers. The children of Israel, wandering in the desert, are attacked by biting serpents. God Himself tells Moses to construct an image of a fiery serpent made of brass and hoist it atop a stag so that "if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived" (Numbers 21:9). Despite the unambiguous biblical account of what prima facie appears to be a miracle, the rabbis are incredulous. "Could the copper serpent cause death or life? It means that when the Israelites, in gazing at the serpent, looked up on high and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed, but if they did not do this, they pined away."
The explanation cited by the commentator is found in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 29a). Again the biblical story of a literal miracle is transformed into a celebration of faith.
Such commentaries understand miracles differently than they are conventionally understood. What are nissim ve-niflaot - miracles and wonders? They are signs, otot, events of significance; events to be held aloft ensigns, standards marking occurrences that have special meanings. Nissim, signs, are set up to gain our attention. They are extraordinarily ordinary happenings that have significance beyond the surface of natural events. The significance is not in the literal raised arms or raised brazen serpent, but in their meaning.
The rabbinic interpretations suggest a world of poetic truths, moral truths that are buried by a prosaic literalism. The Nile turning into blood is not Moses' magic. The redness of the water avenges the innocent blood of the Jewish infants drowned in the Nile. The frogs that choke the Nile are the worshiped gods of fertility, thus instructing a moral symmetry for the Egyptian policy of infanticide. This measure-for-measure (middah ke-neged middah) interpretation focuses on the moral meaning of the ten plagues and is less interested in questions of their facticity. The cause of the event may be as prosaic as dust, but moral faith breathes the life of meaning into them. Literalism, scientific or religious, misses the Spiritual and moral dimensions of story and history.
A passage in the Mechilta (on Exodus 17:5) reports that the Israelites complained about three things: the incense, the ark, and the rod. When the people said that the incense was a means of punishment, for it had killed Nadab and Abihu, the Bible showed it to be an atonement for the people. When they complained that the ark was but a means of punishment, for it smote Uzzah (11 Samuel 6:7), the Bible showed how it was a blessing for David and the people (II Samuel 6:11-12). When they complained that the rod was only a punishment, for it brought ruin upon Egypt, the Bible showed how it had saved the children of Israel.
It is not to the rod of Moses that the rabbis call our attention. The rod has no intrinsic supernatural powers. The rod is an instrument that can save or destroy, relative to the moral intention of its use. For when the same rod that was used to split the sea was used by Moses to strike three times against the rock, forcing it, against God's will, to yield water, it led to the punishment of Moses. The same pans of incense that killed Nadab and Abihu and the 250 rebels against Moses and Aaron restrained the plague against the people and saved them (Numbers 17:13). There is no magic in genuine miracles, only moral meaning.
The "signs" of God are found not in the reports of the changes in the natural order of things, but in nature's orderliness. God is discovered in the intelligibility of the universe rather than in its capriciousness. For its intelligibility enables human beings to exercise their intelligence and will to hallow creation. The evening service (Ma'ariv) begins with the praise of God who with wisdom orders the cycles of time and varies the seasons. Significantly it is followed with a prayer that emphasizes the wisdom that the House of Israel shares through God's teachings. The miracles that are daily with us are in us and are revealed through us when we use our God-given moral wisdom to protect and enhance His creation.
--Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis