Miracles Alone Do Not Cause Belief

English This essay, which was originally delivered in German as a sermons to Parshat Mishpatim, on the 29th of Shevat 5767 (17th of February ’07), explores why biblical miracles were experienced only during, well, biblical times.

Dor haMidbar: The Singular Generation – by Rabbi Arie Folger

After learning of the great miracles, which the Ribono shel ‘Olam (Master of the World) performed to save our ancestors from their enslavement, and to punish our tormentors, both in Egypt and at the Yam Suf, after His wondrous Revelation on Mount Sinai, where the people “saw” the sounds, one is inclined to expect the wondrous and miraculous to continue throughout history. Indeed The very significance of some of HaShem’s Names and titles conjure His omnipresence, thus: E-lohim, Sha-dai, Adon Kol, Melekh ha’Olam and Ribono shel ‘Olam.

Yet, while miracles aren’t entirely absent from our lives, those miracles are quite different from the miracles Moshe Rabbenu performed at G”d’s command. Our miracles are merely the fleeting footprints of Divine Providence, while the miracles of the Exodus constitute the most heavy handed Divine intervention in earthly human matters, we could imagine. When reflecting upon great tragedy, the question is commonly heard why G”d didn’t intervene. Why didn’t He smite the Crusaders, the inquisitors, the hordes of Bogdan Chmielnicki’s Kossacks, etc. The question is perhaps most vividly depicted by a nameless woman who, in Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower speculates whether the Nazi atrocities were possible because kivyachol (as it were) “G”d was on leave.”1

Even in the throes of death, not everyone shared that woman’s outlook. On the same pages, Wiesenthal also wrote about his friend Josek, a “sensitive and deeply religious” businessman, whose life was permeated with Judaism, that: “His faith could be hurt by the environment of the camp … but it could never be shaken.2 Josek wasn’t alone. War time accounts are replete with stories of Jews who, even though caught in the cog wheels of the Nazi murder machine, continued to pray, learn and even teach Torah, they lit makeshift menorot, abstained from bread on Pessach, and longed to perform other mitzvot. Even after their faith had been somewhat hurt – but neither permanently nor deeply shaken – after the war they reestablished Jewish life and gradually fully reconnected with mitzvah observance.

What made Josek’s faith so strong, making the skeptical Wiesenthal admire him? Why did Josek not expect ten plagues to hit the Germans and their Polish, Russian and sundry other collaborators? As Josek did not survive the war, we cannot speak for him, but perhaps our parashah gives us some clues.

After having commanded us in many matters of criminal, civil and ritual law, G”d addresses Moshe concerning a matter, which, lacking both an introduction and an immediate context, seems out of place:

הִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י שֹׁלֵ֤חַ מַלְאָךְ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ֖ בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְלַהֲבִ֣יאֲךָ֔ אֶל־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֲכִנֹֽתִי׃ הִשָּׁ֧מֶר מִפָּנָ֛יו וּשְׁמַ֥ע בְּקֹל֖וֹ אַל־תַּמֵּ֣ר בּ֑וֹ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִשָּׂא֙ לְפִשְׁעֲכֶ֔ם כִּ֥י שְׁמִ֖י בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃ כִּ֣י אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע֙ בְּקֹל֔וֹ וְעָשִׂ֕יתָ כֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲדַבֵּ֑ר וְאָֽיַבְתִּי֙ אֶת־אֹ֣יְבֶ֔יךָ וְצַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־צֹֽרְרֶֽיךָ׃

Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee by the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and hearken unto his voice; be not rebellious against him; for he will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed hearken unto his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries.3

At first sight, this might be an admonition to keep the Torah and her mitzvot. However, we cannot fail to see a parallel with the aftermath of the Chet ha’Egel (sin of the golden calf):

וְשָֽׁלַחְתִּ֥י לְפָנֶ֖יךָ מַלְאָ֑ךְ … כִּי֩ לֹ֨א אֶֽעֱלֶ֜ה בְּקִרְבְּךָ֗ כִּ֤י עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֨רֶף֙ אַ֔תָּה … אַתֶּ֣ם עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֔רֶף רֶ֧גַע אֶחָ֛ד אֶֽעֱלֶ֥ה בְקִרְבְּךָ֖ וְכִלִּיתִ֑יךָ

and I will send an angel before thee … for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people … Ye are a stiffnecked people; if I go up into the midst of thee for one moment, I shall consume thee4

Indeed, according to Rashi, G”d tells Moshe about the consequences of the forthcoming Chet ha’Egel, already in Mishpatim, as Moshe spends his first 40 days on Mount Sinai, right after the Revelation. However, other commentators weren’t pleased with this anachronistic contingency. After all, our ancestors possessed free will and were still free not to commit the Chet ha’Egel. Furthermore, subsequent to Moshe’s pleading, G”d return to dwell in the midst of the people of Israel even after Chet ha’Egel.5

Instead, Ramban (Nachmanides) and – more briefly – Rashbam, maintain that the less directly felt presence of G”d, alluded to by the fact that G”d will send an angel6 after Moshe’s death, once Yehoshu’ah bin Nun takes over, for we find in Scripture:

וַיְהִ֗י בִּֽהְי֣וֹת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ֮ בִּֽירִיחוֹ֒ וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה־אִישׁ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד לְנֶגְדּ֔וֹ … וַיֹּ֣אמֶר … אֲנִ֥י שַׂר־צְבָֽא־ה’ עַתָּ֣ה בָ֑אתִי

And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him … And he said: ‘… I am captain of the host of HASHEM; I am now come.’7

In conclusion, both Ramban and Rashbam believe that, from the outset, from the Revelation at Sinai, the wondrous times were meant to last only for the duration of Moshe’s lifetime. Miracles of the scale of the ten plagues were never meant to appear afterwards. Even the conquest of the Land of Israel was meant to happen semi-normally, with Yehoshu’ah and the children of Israel expected to participate in a military campaign. Ramban and Rashbam essentially tell us that in the history of the world, and in the history of the Jewish people, there are also some singular events and singular epochs that would not be replicated later.

This, of course, raises the question of why the miracles of the Exodus were not to be replicated in the future. Perhaps, the reason is that it isn’t all that great to live in an easy world, where everything is supernatural. Rabbi Akiva teaches us in the Mishnah that: “the generation of the desert has no part in the world to come.”8 Perhaps mankind wasn’t created to live in a miraculous Garden of Eden. Perhaps we fare much better in the difficult world we live in, where we are free to commit terrible sins, among them the most terrible crimes, but are also enabled to reach that which mankind is most nobly capable of.

And so, perhaps Josek, who, in Wiesenthal’s book, maintains, against his friends’ comprehension, that Nazis, too, were humans, and that it was precisely humans, not animals, that were capable of turning into such beasts [by exercising their free will], perhaps that same Josek didn’t pray nor expect an Exodus styled redemption, for he understood that that was a singular event for a singular time, quite unlike even the greatest tragedies that befell our people.

All this implies that when we pray, we do not pray for anything so unlikely that wouldn’t fit in G”d’s creation. Indeed, even the coming of Mashiach, the Ultimate Redemption, might unfold gradually. With our prayer, we express verbal and emotional aspects of our relationship to G”d. With our prayer we primarily aim to change ourselves, make ourselves more meritorious, and with our petitions we pray that G”d will grant our requests, but in His private way, in a way that keeps our world a complex place.

Indeed, may we merit to understand our generation’s role in history and appropriately channel our prayer to come ever closer to G”d and His Torah. May we also pray humbly and sensibly and have our prayers answered in due time.

… for a prayer is never in vain, even though we don’t always know how a prayer takes effect.

1The Sunflower, New York 1997, pgs. 7-8.

2Ibid. pg. 5

3Shemot 23:20-22

4Shemot 33:2-5

5Ibid. 14-16

6Contrast that with the words of the Haggadah:

ויוציאנו ה’, ממצרים — לא על ידי מלאך, לא על ידי שרף, לא על ידי שליח, אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא בכבודו ובעצמו:

“And G”d took us out of Egypt” – not through an angel, nor through a Saraf-angel, nor through an agent, rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, took us personally out of Egypt.

7Yehoshu’ah 5:13-14

8Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3

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