By Rabbi James R. Michaels
This week’s Torah portion is Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 – 17:16.
A classic Jewish joke tells of parents who asked their child what he learned in Hebrew school that day. The child replies, “We learned how the Egyptian army was chasing the Israeli army. When they came to a river, the Israelis built a bridge to get across; then, when the Egyptians tried to cross, the Israelis blew up the bridge.”
The parents, incredulous, say, “Did they really teach you that?” “Well, no,” the child says, “but if I told you what they really said, you’d never believe it.”
The lesson the child learned, of course, was about how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea when they were leaving Egypt. It’s so dramatic that the Israelites broke into song when they reached the other shore. Movies such as “The Ten Commandments” and “Prince of Egypt” have employed special effects to demonstrate the event’s power.
But the splitting of the Red Sea wasn’t a cinematic trick; it was a miracle. Like the child in the joke, most people have difficulty processing the concept of miracles. The reason is because accepting an event as miraculous means we must suspend the law of cause and effect.
Jewish tradition embraces the miraculous — in the Bible and also in daily life. Here are a few examples:
Healing: When a person is extremely ill, and the prospects for recovery are slim, it doesn’t mean that we should give up hope. In my work as a chaplain, I’ve often encountered a critically ill patient who makes a miraculous recovery. That’s why we offer prayers in the direst circumstances; we should always hold out hope that a miracle can occur.
Relationships: We all know that relationships between spouses or siblings or among friends can turn sour. Such situations can seem irreconcilable. But we aren’t destined to live in that sour state; therapists and counselors are able to bridge the chasm of bad feelings, helping to bring people back together. Those who have experienced this kind of reconciliation can see it’s a miracle.
Daily events: There are hundreds of events that we experience every day, and which we take for granted — sunrise, good health, readily available sustenance and the regularity of our world. We should recognize that these and similar things are all miracles and express gratitude for them. And if, at times, they don’t occur as expected, there is usually the ability to fix the situation and regain a semblance of normal living. That, too, is a miracle.
The Jewish tradition builds an appreciation of daily miracles into our daily prayers. Near the end of the Amidah, we read a prayer called Modim expressing gratitude for the miracles in our lives. I believe the Modim prayer also allows us to expect daily miracles, and to rely on God to continue providing them.
There is an irony in the story of the miracle at the Red Sea. Three days later, when confronted with a lack of drinking water, the people become angry and remonstrate against both God and Moses. One would think that the memory of the recent miracle would prevent cynicism and lack of trust. Our tradition calls upon us to rely on God’s miracles, and to have faith even when we don’t expect them.
Questions for thought and discussion:
1. How can we recognize daily miracles, how do we express gratitude for them?
2. How can we maintain our faith if a desired miracle doesn’t occur? That is, what can we do when God’s answer to our prayer is “No?” ■
Rabbi James R. Michaels is rabbi emeritus of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.