Divrei Torah

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August 5, 2022 - Parashat Devarim 5782

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Do You Believe In Miracles?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses assembles the Israelites on the plains of Moab, poised to enter the Land promised to our ancestors. In a series of three speeches, Moses recounts the history of the past forty years, reviews old laws and imparts new ones, exhorts the people to follow the commandments and castigates them for their failure to do so in the past. He recalls the miracles of the plagues in Egypt and the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. He reminds the Israelites how God cared for them in the wilderness, “as a man carries his son, all the way that you traveled until you came to this place” (Deuteronomy 1:31).  God even personally guides the Jewish people on their journey, going before them “in fire by night and in cloud by day” (1:33), yet the people have no faith.

At the beginning of his third discourse, Moses again alludes to the history of the Exodus, this time stating, “Yet the Eternal has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear until today” (Deuteronomy 29:3).

What does Moses mean?  Moses maintains that the Israelites never understood that their liberation and survival were miraculous events. Only forty years later, the “until this day” of the above passage, did the Jewish people understand the true nature of the Exodus and journey through the wilderness. “The ability to understand, to see or hear the divine significance of events, may be granted or withheld from man,” writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “One may see great wonders but remain entirely insensitive.” (As quoted in Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary p 1158).

The Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai, writes about this phenomenon in a poem entitled Nisim. (Translated here by Robert Alter. For the Hebrew and a translation by Rabbi Steven Sager z”l see here.)

From a distance everything looks like a miracle
but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like that.
Even someone who crossed the Red Sea when it split
saw only the sweating back
of the man in front of him
and the swaying of his big thighs,
or at best, in a hasty glance to one side,
fish in a riot of colors inside the wall of water,
as in a marine observatory behind panels of glass.

Seen from the proper perspective, all of life can be recognized as a miracle. But when we are too close to it, when we are “in the moment”, we often miss it. When we are focused on the task at hand, we may never look up, or around that we might appreciate the miracle that is occurring. The poem continues:

The real miracles happen at the next table
of a restaurant in Albuquerque:
two women sat there, one with a diagonal
zipper, altogether lovely,
and the other said, “I kept it together
and didn’t cry.”

The narrator of our poem, however, sees the miraculous in the prosaic, the everyday. We wonder about the snatch of conversation he reports he hears from the next table in the restaurant. “I kept it together and didn’t cry”. Was this woman talking about confronting her superior around a work issue? Was she leaving her husband? Was the miracle that she “kept it together” where she expected she might fall apart? Or is the miracle the narrator perceives the fact that we can share our struggles with sympathetic friends, we can receive comfort and consolation from others following a difficult encounter or situation? We don’t think of that as “a miracle”, but perhaps it is. The poem concludes:

And after in the red corridors
of the foreign hotel I saw
boys and girls who held in their arms
tiny children born of them,
and they held
sweet little dolls.

The poet then moves from the snatch of conversation to the red corridor of the hotel in which he is staying. He sees “boys and girls” holding small children born to them, who themselves hold baby-dolls in their arms. To the older narrator, I think, the young adults he sees with their children are merely, “boys and girls” – children themselves. The “sweet little dolls” held by the children represent the future generation that one day will be born to them. This is the miracle of birth and death and renewal, and perhaps the miracle of the continuity of the Jewish people as well.

In our “Modim” prayer of the Amidah we declare that God’s “miracles are with us every day”. But like the Israelites, we may not be aware of them. Perhaps this is simply part of the human condition. Rabbi Elazar expounds on verse 72:18 in Psalms, “Blessed is Adonai Elohim, the God of Israel, who does wondrous things alone”. “What does it mean that God does wondrous things alone?” asks Rabbi Elazar. “It means that even the one for whom a miracle was performed does not recognize the miracle that was performed for him.” (Niddah 31a)

Shabbat Shalom
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Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04) is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois and is the current President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.