Looking in the files I have for this Torah portion, I found a piece written by my predecessor, Rabbi David Teitelbaum. Rabbi Teitelbaum notes that […]
Looking in the files I have for this Torah portion, I found a piece written by my predecessor, Rabbi David Teitelbaum. Rabbi Teitelbaum notes that this portion describes the first seven plagues, and then he asks the question that so many of us ask: How do we understand miracles? Are the plagues the miraculous hand of God? Rabbi Teitelbaum makes it clear that he does not believe in supernatural miracles and sharpens the question: How can someone who doesn’t believe in supernatural miracles – divine interruption which contradicts the laws of nature – interpret the plagues?
He rejects answers which make the plagues naturally plausible, like the blood actually being red sediment washed down the Nile. He argues that the text portrays the plagues as supernatural miracles – taking place at a particular time as a result of God’s will. So what does he do with this text? He sees the story in a more literary way. This is a story that uses miracles to lift up a deeper truth, the centrality of liberty and freedom. Phrases like the “hand of God” are ways of teaching what is godly, or of infinite worth and that is freedom and liberation.
Rabbi Teitelbaum would say, “Don’t get caught up in whether miracles happened or not. Get moved by the message of pursuing liberty and freedom.” Rabbi Teitelbaum sits on my, and many of your, shoulders, teaching us that this story calls on us to pray with our feet and act whenever anyone is enslaved or persecuted, as he did when he marched in Selma for civil rights.
One of Rabbi Teitelbaum’s dear friends is Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who gives a slightly different interpretation, but in the same interpretive family as Rabbi Teitelbaum’s position. Rabbi Schulweis points to the various rabbinic interpretations which moralize miracles. Rabbi Schulweis points out that the ancient Rabbis were not interested in literal events, as acts which defy the laws of nature, but instead interested in the morals that emerged from them. For the ancient Rabbis the plagues held deep moral lessons. For example, when they study darkness, they point out that text tells how the people could not see each other. For them, the lesson isn’t literally about physical darkness, but about the tendency to not see our fellow human. That is the great plague! Rabbi Schulweis’ moral brilliance is how the text comes alive through his sermons and writings as a call to moral activism, to see fellow humans, and their suffering, and act.
In his book For Those Who Cannot Believe, Rabbi Schulweis looks at the concept of miracle from another angle. In English, the word miracle connotes “that which defies nature.” That is not what the Hebrew implies. The Hebrew word for miracle is nes and nes means “something, which points the way,” a sign or a banner. A miracle is something that we see that fills us with wonder and awe, and makes us aware of something beyond ourselves. It is something that requires us to see that which we often overlook.
The spiritual challenge of this definition of miracle is to make time and space in our lives to allow us to be aware of awe and wonder, amazement and astonishment, those things which are signs of that which is transcendent. When we create time to think of daily miracles, it changes us. In this moment in our history, when there is a palpable unease, I want to suggest a spiritual practice of awareness of nes. Nes grounds you in a sense of wonder at a time when we might be so consumed with the daily news that we lose perspective.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who teaches at Hebrew Union College, writes about the nissim that surround us. Sunsets, quasars, the protein sequences that burgeon into life, the evolutionary miracle of human consciousness and human conscience, the insistent, permanent yearning for freedom and for goodness, are these all not signposts, pointing the way towards God? And the music of Mozart, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Shakespeare’s poetry, are they not signposts too? And passion and compassion, the everyday, but unexplainable love of a parent for a child, are these not signposts too? These are accidents in a way, the result of Darwinian selection and Mendelian genes in chance sequences over time. But they are equally the hand of God, working in confident denial of the law of entropy which would have predicted random chaos, not the natural order that mathematics measures and that humans enjoy. Like the three strangers who came to the tent of Abraham, like the bush that burned before Moses, like the Torah that we have pondered over for generations, these signs of God are ambiguous. But they are real, and for those who have eyes to see, they are wonders, wonders that point the way towards God.
This week, feeling adrift amidst the daily news, I focused on nes. I needed to connect to something beyond myself and recapture the awe that I try to envision and keep in my awareness every day, but of which I often lose sight. I watched a very short TED Talk by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg, where he bends the boundaries of time and space with high-speed cameras, time lapses and microscopes. His project, called “Mysteries of the Unseen World,” slows downs, speeds up and magnifies the astonishing wonders of nature. You see colors, forms, and shapes that are extraordinary, windows into the unobservable, subtle, delicate beauty that defines our world, yet we don’t see it.
Sitting with nes, I slowed down a bit, and open my heart and soul in ways the daily news never can. I need that.
Let’s look the concept of nes from one more angle. Nes is not only the natural world, but there is also nes in Jewish history. The paradigmatic holiday of nes is Chanukah, where we celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. But is the miracle just about the oil? Think about the second blessing we chant when we light the chanukkiah, “She’asa nisim lavotenu bayim ha’hem, ba’zman ha’zeh,” who has made miracles in those times and in our times. If Chanukah was just about the miracle of the oil, it would not have said that miracles are made in our time as well. The miracle of Chanukah about something broader and ongoing. Chanukah is about the moment in history when we found the courage and resolve to fight to preserve our religious freedom in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the ongoing miracle of survival, of how the acts of a few who defied the authorities ultimately brought about change.
We witnessed what I see as a nes this week in Israel, a sign that points to the amazing redemptive power that exists in the world. Israel granted refugee status to 100 orphaned Syrian children. They will be integrated into Arab Israeli families and their immediate relatives will also be considered for refugee status. As the massive humanitarian catastrophe played out of Israel’s doorstep, Israel has responded to the suffering. Israel has treated those wounded in the conflict for the past several years. Over 2,000 Syrians have been treated in Israel and the army has standing orders to treat any Syrian who requires serious medical assistance. Various organizations in Israel offer food, educational materials and other assistance. In September, even when the UN was unable to transfer aid because it was too dangerous, the Israeli army transferred one ton of meat. This is an important story of nes, “a sign that leads us” as we struggle to help those who are vulnerable.
There are miracles in the past, in the present and waiting to be brought about in the future. I would like to ask you to stand and recite with me the prayer for nes that is in the prayer book and which traditional Jews say each day: We thank you that You are the Lord, our God and God of our ancestors, throughout all time. You are the Rock of our lives, the Shield of our deliverance in every generation. We thank You and praise You morning, noon and night for Your miracles which daily attend us and for Your wondrous kindness.
Let us open our eyes to nes. Let us partner with God and one another in bringing nes into the world.