We begin this week a series of four essays that discuss issues of relevance to Pesach.
Ramban (in his concluding remarks to Parashat Bo) observes “Hashem does not make obvious miracles in every generation in the presence of every wicked individual or heretic”. Although this may be a source of frustration to some, we shall endeavor to demonstrate that this is the source from which a wellspring of rich religious experience emerges. Ramban (ad. loc.) will be the focus and basis of our discussion.
The World Functions in a Natural Manner
The following episode recorded by the Gemara (Shabbat 53b) illustrates that Hashem wants the world to function in a natural manner. There was a very poor man whose wife had died after having given birth to a child. The widower became frantic as he had no financial resources to hire a wet nurse to feed the baby. Hashem, though, made a miracle and the husband grew breasts from which he nursed the baby. Rav Yosef exclaimed what a great man this must be that he merited such a great miracle. Abaye, however, declared that just the opposite is true – he must be on a low spiritual level as he needed Hashem to disrupt the natural order instead of providing him with resources in a natural manner. Our challenge is to discover Hashem hiding behind the natural processes of life.
Unfortunately, many neglect their responsibility to seek out Hashem (see Devarim 4:29) and fail to appreciate Hashem and His involvement in the world. Such a situation had existed in the years leading up to Yetzi’at Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt), where many did not recognize Hashem (see, for instance Paroh’s exclamation of “Who is Hashem that I should listen to Him”, Shemot 5:2). In addition, many have observed that Hashem does not directly intervene in any of the events recorded in the beginning of Sefer Shemot until the death of Paroh (Shemot 2:23-25) when we cried out to Him in great anguish. In other words, the great miracles surrounding our departure from Egypt followed many years of Hester Panim, in which Hashem so to speak “hid His face”.
Ramban (ad. loc.) explains that this motivated Hashem to incontrovertibly demonstrate His existence and divine intervention through the great miracles of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. The question remains, though, what about subsequent generations. How does Hashem provide opportunities for people to recognize Him long after the exodus from Egypt?
The Sacred Task of the Jewish People to Publicize Hashem’s Presence
Ramban answers that Hashem has delegated to us the job of publicizing His existence and involvement in the world. Since Hashem will not split the Yam Suf or perform the ten plagues in every generation, it is our job to gather and retell these great stories. Ramban explains that this is the reason for our stressing Yetzi’at Mitzrayim during Pesach and throughout the year. In this manner an agnostic or atheist’s claim of lack of evidence is refuted as Hashem did perform blatant miracles and has entrusted the Jewish People of each generation with the sacred task of continuing to publicize these miracles. Indeed, as Yeshayahu (43:10) exclaims the Jewish People “are My witnesses, says Hashem”. Indeed, it is as if the miracles of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim reoccur each year when we retell the stories.
The Jewish People (as noted by Rabi Yehudah Halevi in his great philosophical work entitled “The Kuzari”) are in the best position to serve as Hashem’s witnesses as approximately two million of our ancestors witnessed first hand the great miracles of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim and the revelation at Har Sinai. These two million people were skeptical individuals who often fought and challenged Moshe Rabbeinu, except at Sinai when they received the Torah (see Rashi to Shemot 19:2 s.v. Vayichan Sham Yisrael).
Moreover (as noted by the Ran in his Derashot, number three), one cannot claim that the Jewish People were swayed by the seductive power of a charismatic speaker, since Moshe Rabbeinu experienced difficulty speaking. These millions of Jews related these events to their progeny who continued to do so generation after generation. Jews love to debate (open any page of Talmud for evidence) and since Jews for countless generations did not debate the veracity of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, there is no greater evidence of the truthfulness of their testimony.
This assignment reflects a core mission of humanity – the completion of creation. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in the second section of his essay entitled Ish Halacha, explains that Hashem deliberately refrained from completing creation. Our job is to complete Hashem’s world, as He (Bereishit 1:28 and Ramban ad. loc.) charges Adam with the job of “conquering” the world. In the spiritual realm as well, Hashem has left the world incomplete and our job is to complete it by announcing Hashem’s presence to all.
Ramban goes as far as to state that this task as the central reason and purpose of our existence on this earth. It also lies as the basic motivation behind all of the Mitzvot. As Ramban states:
“One who purchases a Mezuzah for a small amount of money, affixes it on his doorpost and bears in mind the purpose of the Mezuzah, has already acknowledged divine creation of the world, divine omniscience and providence, prophecy, belief in the pillars of Torah, in addition to thanking Hashem for the enormous kindness He bestowed on those who followed His will by delivering us from slavery to freedom.”
He also asserts that this is the purpose of gathering in synagogues “where people acknowledge their Creator and publicize this and proclaim before Him you have created us”. This explains the deep satisfaction experienced by those who participate in communal Tefillah. By doing so we fulfill the very purpose of our existence and there can be no greater satisfaction than that.
From Open Miracles to Subtle Miracles
Ramban continues and asserts that acknowledging overt miracles leads to recognition of the subtle miracles (Nissim Nistarim) that surround us and we need only be sufficiently alert to them to identify them. Ramban writes that belief in Nissim Nistarim on both the communal and individual levels are the “basis of the entire Torah”. Ramban goes as far as to argue that everything we do “involves miracles. There is no nature and path of the world for either the community or individuals”. Although Rambam (Commentary to Avot 5:6 and Shemonah Perakim number 8) would not fully subscribe to this specific point, nonetheless Rambam agrees that recognizing Hashem’s involvement in the world is a key component of a Jew’s worldview (see, for instance Hilchot Ta’aniyot 1:1).
Fulfillment of Hashem’s Promises - The Desolation and Rebirth of Eretz Yisrael
Ramban concludes that Hashem’s hand is evident in the fulfillment of the Torah’s rewards and punishments. For example, the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 1:10) writes that there is no greater miracle than the continued survival of the Jewish People, as promised by the Torah (eternal Israel, see Sh’muel I 15:29) despite the unceasing efforts of those determined to destroy us. Another example is the fulfillment of the promise that the Torah will never be forgotten by all generations of Jews (Devarim 31:21 and Rashi ad. loc. s.v. Ki Lo Tishachach Mipi Zaro) and that the story of Megillat Esther will never be forgotten by the Jewish People (Esther 9:28).
Ramban notes the fulfillment of the land of Israel being desolate (Devarim 29:13 and 24) as “publicizing to all nations the punishment from Hashem” we received as forewarned by the Torah if we do not honor our Torah obligations. Elsewhere (commentary to Vayikra 26:15) Ramban, writing in the thirteenth century, explains the Torah’s (ad. loc. Pasuk 32) informing us that if and when we are exiled, our enemies will fail in the land:
This is a great proof and promise to us, as there is nowhere else in the entire world a land that was beautiful and productive and was inhabited for so long and yet currently desolate. From the time we were forced out of the land it has accepted no nation and they all try to settle it but meet with no success.
Indeed, the famous non-Jewish author Mark Twain makes a similar observation when he visited the land of Israel in 1867 in a stunning passage of his work “Innocents Abroad” (chapter 56):
Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.
The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are not picturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts tinged with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch of hill and plain wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint, no striking object, no soft picture dreaming in a purple haze or mottled with the shadows of the clouds. Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective – distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land”.
Since the 1880’s with Hashem’s blessing and help we have seen Eretz Yisrael wake up. The Eretz Yisrael we see today is totally different than what Mark Twain saw. On display for the entire world to see is how the land of Israel remains faithful to the Jewish People (using a phrase I heard from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik) as it is productive for us and desolate for others. For example, the Jewish inhabited sections of the Gaza Strip were so productive that its produce was sought after throughout the world (even in mainstream supermarkets here in the United States) on the one hand, and yet the Arab controlled Gaza Strip has emerged as one of the poorest places on earth.
Hashem does not perform open miracles in every generation. However, Hashem makes certain “quasi-open miracles” as ample evidence of the divine source of our holy Torah. Moreover, in the past one hundred and thirty years He has magnified the quasi-open miracle of Eretz Yisrael’s loyalty to the Jews and made the quasi-open miracle of the establishment and maintenance of Jewish sovereignty over portions of Eretz Yisrael.
One may ask why Hashem chose our generation to perform these quasi-open miracles. I suggest that just as Hashem performed open miracles as a counterbalance to the years He hid during the years of oppression in Egypt so too Hashem performs semi-quasi miracles in our time after the devastation of the Holocaust. It may also serve as a counterbalance to the reduced sense of dependence on Hashem due to modern advances in medicine and technology (although advances and discoveries in science offer rich and new opportunities for appreciating the depth and vastness of the profound wisdom of our Creator).
There are ample opportunities to perceive Hashem even though He does not openly display His presence as He did during the time of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. One who searches in good faith for Hashem will have no problem finding Him.