Parashat Matot-Mase 5769 (on miracles)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

The Mishna says: 
הרואה מקום שנעשו בו ניסים לישראל, אומר ברוך שעשה ניסים לאבותינו במקום הזה 

The one who sees a place where miracles were done for Israel says: Blessed is the One who made miracles for our ancestors in this place. (Berakhot 9:1)

One who thinks that the section of the Torah that we read today, which listed the stations of the Israelites’ forty-year trek was too long, or a bit repetitious, that person, according to the Rambam – Maimonides, just doesn’t understand. These portions are necessary, he writes, to emphasise the miracle of the manna. Someone who reads the Torah, the story set so many years ago, may assume that the text was exaggerating and that the journeying was through cultivated areas, and so the relaying of the names of these identifiably desolate locations is there to convince the sceptic that the manna was miraculously provided by God every day for forty years.

And this scepticism is natural, says the Rambam: “things set down in writing aren’t like those that you see for yourself.” In fact, he tells us: “it is impossible and inconceivable that a miracle lasts permanently and throughout the succession of generations so that all can see it.” (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:50)

Even with the extensive list which clarifies the nature of the miracle that we read in the Torah today, we still will never be able to truly appreciate the miracles that were done for an earlier generation. We will be unable to experience God’s actions in the world with the same immediacy. We can only hope to respond to these wonders with the full and appropriate degree of gratitude. However foundational we believe the Torah to be, our lives are not transformed by the mere recitation of these miracles.

What does that leave us with? Can we relate to these experiences as anything other than distant descendants, viewing the miracles from afar?

Central to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s understanding of Judaism – of religion – was that humans have, or at least can have, an awareness of the miraculous nature of the whole universe. This posture of what he calls “radical amazement” inculcates in us awe and gratitude to God, and demands a response; that response is our spiritual life.

Radical amazement can be sparkedby specific experiences whether unusual or mundane – a shooting star or a glass of water. (Heschel, God in Search of Man, Ch.4) But, fundamentally, Heschel is dealing with an attitude, not an event.The miracles of the Bible happen in time and space, not only in the spiritual or psychological realm. We might try to sense the hand of God in every aspect of life but nothing “happened” to us: the tree blossoming in Spring may be described by Heschel as miraculous, but a cancer suddenly going into remission is a miracle. Miracles are anomalies in our lives, not the substance of them.

But the Talmud on the mishna I started with teaches that there is also another blessing in our liturgy:

ברוך שעשה לי נס במקום הזה

Blessed is the One who made a miracle for me at this place. (Berakhot 54a)

This is the blessing said upon seeing a place when one personally experienced a miracle. Although the talmud has no shortage of stories of the supernatural occurring in the days of the Rabbis, this berakha has been fixed as a statuary part of the Jewish legal tradition. The Shulhan Arukh (OH 218:4) and other major codes endorse the recitation of this blessing as normative Jewish practice. What miracles do they expect to happen for us? Large-scale miracles seem to have disappeared in the post-Biblical era, and today we explain the more humble supposed miracles as determined by physical causation.

Though his ruling is by no means accepted by all, the Ribash (Responsa #337), Rabbi Yitzhak b. Sheshet Perfet, in 14th Century Spain, wrote that this blessing is to be recited by everyone who returns to a place where they escaped a dangerous situation, even if this did not run counter to the natural order of the world.

Coming home safely after an encounter with a dangerous individual. Falling off a ladder. A traffic accident. According to the Ribash, one does not have to believe that the laws of physics were suspended to experience a miracle. And being in a situation that we naturally perceive as dangerous has a substantial emotional effect on people. Not much of a supernaturalist myself, I find that my experience is honestly expressed when I recite this blessing on revisiting the café where I had a close brush with a suicide bomb. The empirical encounter with danger, perhaps with mortality, is enough to inspire a new level of gratitude for the life and for the world that God has granted us.

According to the Rambam, reading the account in Parashat Mase of the stations of encampment is meant to help us appreciate the impact of the miracle of the manna. Experiencing a miracle ourselves, in being delivered from a dangerous situation can, and does for many people, open our eyes to our reliance on God in a much more immediate way. No-one hopes to be in a situation where a miracle is required in order to come out alive. But there is enough danger in the world that thesemiracles happen with some frequency. As the Israelites in the wilderness awoke each day to find yet another blanket of manna on the ground, they must have sensed enormous relief, awe, and humility. As that powerful combination of emotions is still experienced by those who now encounter miracles, we begin to understand and perhaps find a connection to this biblical narrative of an extended forty-year miracle.

Shabbat shalom