Parshat B'Shallach

Miracle: How We See and What We See
Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman
January, 1999

Ruth Fisher tells the story of riding the BMT late one evening in 1947. The subway car was virtually empty, making her uncomfortable. At 23rd St., a man got on the train, and despite the fact that there were only a few people there, he sat in the seat adjoining Ruth Fisher's. At the next stop, a woman boarded the train, looked around, and sat next to the man, in the very same seat. Strange, thought Ruth. The woman peered over the man's shoulder, reading his newspaper, then addressed him in Yiddish. "Where are you from - originally?" she asked. "What city?' she queried. And finally "What did you do before the war?" Then she said, "Look at me! Look at me! Don't you recognize me?" The man and woman were husband and wife, separated in 1938 at the outbreak of the war. Both had survived the camps and found their way to America. And here, on a subway train in New York City, late one evening, they had found each other once again. In Ruth Fisher's mind, she had been witness to a miracle.

Recently, I accompanied my daughter Naomi's class to the Maryland Science Center where was viewed an IMAX film about volcanoes. I was struck by the manner in which an erupting volcano can wreak havoc and destruction, or it can give rise to a new mountain replete with the potential for new life. In 1980, Mt. St. Helen's erupted, as did Mount Vesuvius in the year 79; in both cases destruction and devastation resulted. In 1943 in Paricutin, Mexico, a farmer named Dionisio Pulido noticed that his field was getting warmer. Within a few days, a hill had grown in the middle of his field and it grew hotter and hotter, finally erupting into a volcanic mountain a quarter of a mile high. Within a few years it bloomed with trees and plants of many species, creating niches for many animals. Sh'mad or Ya'tzar. Destruction or creation.

And what of the volcanoes in our lives? Do we see them as Sh'mad (destruction) or Yatzar (the potential for renewal)? And more importantly, how do we use them?

As the Israelites stand at the shore of the Reed Sea, a volcano erupts. Its lava - the Egyptian army, horsemen and charioteers - flows over the desert toward them. What should they do?

The Torah tells us that Moses prayed to God. "Why do you cry out to Me?" God asks, "Raise your staff over the water." The midrash jumps in here to tell us what happened next. Despite God's admonition, Moses continues to pray. With the Egyptian army drawing closer, trapped between the pounding wheels of their chariots and the raging waters of the Sea, Moses stands and prays. Seeing that Moses is paralyzed and unable to act, Nachshon ben Amminidab, head of the Tribe of Judah, races to the shore of the Reed Sea. He alone understands that it is time for Israel to take action and be partners with God in bringing their own redemption. He jumps into the turbulent, roiling waters and begins swimming. As the waters encircle him to the point that he nearly drowns, Moses raises his staff over the waters and God parts them. Israel walks through on dry ground.

Nachshon understands the risk of a volcano to annihilate everything in its path, but it is precisely that risk which make redemption possible. Nachshon alone is willing to forfeit his life in order to live, an irony that defies explanation in the rational realm, but resonates in the religious soul. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, widely acknowledged as one of the foremost liberal mystics of our day, wrote in his seminal work "A River of Light" that genuine change, transformation, requires a willingness to leave behind what we were and - for the space of time that the transformation requires - be nothing. In order to change, I must stop being what I was before I can become something new. In between the old and the new is a moment of transformation - a moment when I am neither the old nor the new, but am nothing. That experience - of leaving behind what we were and being nothing, is so terrifying and threatening that many of us never succeed in affecting change. But those who do experience the ecstasy of redemption. For them, there is a miracle. Nachshon ben Amminadab, head of the tribe of Judah, jumps into the water, risking Nothingness, to bring redemption.

We know that for our ancestors, a miracle happened. The Sea split and they walked through on dry ground, forever free from Egypt. Yet, the word miracle is nowhere found in our Tanakh. Rather, we are told about moftim ("wonders") and otot (signs). Why does the Torah not tell us what we already know: that the Parting of the Reed Sea is a miracle?

Perhaps it is because miracles are not a matter of empirical observation, but rather the interpretation and meaning we ascribe to events, much like the volcano which can be viewed as either a destructive force, or a creative force.

Surely the greatest miracle of all time was the Parting of the Reed Sea, by which the Israelites - all 600,000 according to the Torah - experienced redemption from slavery. Midrash Shemot Rabbah (24:1) tells us that, while the riverbed was still wet and muddy, two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, were disgusted by it as they slogged through. Reuven said to Shimon, "Ugh, this is just like Egypt. There we had clay and here we have clay. Yech, there we had mortar and bricks and here in the sea we have mortar and bricks." And so they neither noticed nor understood why the Israelites were singing and celebrating on the far shore. For them, the greatest miracle of all time never happened. For them is was not a mofet (wonder) or an ot (sign) because they could not find the meaning in it.

For our ancestors, crossing through the Reed Sea is the quintessential moment of redemption. For us, it is the very paradigm of redemption. For one week each spring we relive it, and twice everyday in our prayers we commemorate the Exodus by singing a selection from the Song at the Sea which our ancestors sang - the Mi Chamocha - to remind ourselves of the very real possibility of redemption in our lives and in the life of the world.

But do we believe the message? Emil Fackenheim said that if an agnostic had been present at Mount Sinai, he would have heard the thunder and seen the lightning and wondered what all the commotion was about. The Zohar expresses it more charitably in commenting on the same pasuk "Israel saw the voice of thunder" atop the mountain: Why didn't they hear the thunder and see the lightning? Everyone saw according to their ability, however limited.

I'm not sure I agree with either Fackenheim or the Zohar. The problem may be that we are raised to rely upon empiricism and logic alone. Yet there is far more to life than empiricism and logic can discern. My ability to experience is not limited to the five physical senses I was taught in kindergarten. My ability to comprehend is not limited to the logical and rational side of my intellect. I experience beyond the physical and comprehend beyond the logical, and it is through the multifaceted magic of Jewish living that the many modes of experience and comprehension can be melded and molded into a religious moment that transcends the mundane. It is the magic and mystery of relationship with God that transforms the experience of slogging through the mud into a march of redemption. But it takes one more element: my willingness to take the risk that insures that I step out into what might be mud, yet might turn into dry ground.

Albert Einstein said, "Either there are no miracles or everything is a miracle." Our tradition weighs in on the latter. Life is filled to the brim with miracles but our eyes are too often closed. Sometimes it takes a volcano to help us see. Recently I read "Tuesdays With Morrie," a touching tribute by a student to his old college professor. For Morrie Schwartz, the catastrophe of having progressive ALS allowed him to experience a fuller and deeper life.

The morning prayers bid us to open our eyes not only to a new day, but to the miracles which abound in every day: We recite Nisim b'chol yom "The miracles in everyday." The miracle of life and renewal, the miracle of health and strength, the miracle of home and family, the miracle of love and companionship, the miracle of light and hope. Often, miracles are not so dramatic, but rather ordinary. And sometimes, they are so extraordinarily mundane, that they remind us that even the NY subway is a venue for God's sanctifying power in the universe as it was for Ruth Fisher one evening in 1947. In the years that followed, Ms. Fisher couldn't help but ask herself why this reunion had taken place next to her. Suggesting that she was there to serve as a witness, she reflects, "...having witnessed such an incredible 'coincidence' unfold before my very eyes, to stand at the threshold of life knowing clearly that with God... all things are possible."

Reuven and Shimon, had they been on that subway car, would have seen only a frumpy man and a middle-aged woman. Ruth Fisher saw a miracle. Perhaps it is less WHAT we see, than HOW we see.