January 16, 2003




by Carol Steinberg



Today’s middle-third of the parashah includes the, the exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the wonderful Song of the Sea, and two further trials of Israel’s faith.  These are stories we know very well.  Last week, we discussed the problem of free will and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  This week’s parashah raised similar questions for me, as well as some other questions- a) about miracles, b) about free will, and c) about the role of women.  The last two are the simplest to discuss so I’ll go in reverse order.


The parashah presents the Song of the Sea in full, and then states briefly that Miriam led the women in singing and dancing with timbrels. We are told that the fact that the women brought their instruments is a sign that their faith is stronger than men’s.  Some commentators also refer to the greater faith women showed by going to sleep with their husbands in the fields during slavery aw well.  An early rabbi notes Miriam referred to the women with a masculine form lachem – and states this is a sign that proves that women were on a level with men.   Some modern commentators suggest that the song of the Sea was originally written by Miriam in the first place, just as we have the song of Deborah by a woman.  


About free will- the parashah says that Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart yet again so that he turned a blind eye to all the previous miracles, pursued the Israelites resulting in the drowning of his entire army.  Why was it necessary to have this destruction after the plagues?  Further, only three days after the miracle of the splitting of the Sea the people complain about the bitter waters. In less than a month after the water problem is solved, they go on to complain about being taken from the fleshpots of Egypt.  Why have they lost their faith so quickly after such major miracles were performed for them?  Why does God, who can turn people’s hearts when he wants to, sentence this poor generation to die in the wilderness when he could have strengthened their hearts?  Perhaps he was trying to tell us that although we should trust in Him, we each have to learn for ourselves, or that we should not rely totally on Him.  It reminds me of the story of the man in the flood who turned down the offer of rescue three times while waiting for God to save him.  When he inevitably drowns, he asks God why he didn’t try to save him.  God replies, “I did.  I sent you a truck, I sent you a rowboat, I sent you a helicopter!”


When I was rereading the parashah, I started thinking about the whole question of miracles.  As I read on this subject I realized that it is not really a new question.   Since the time of the early rabbis, people have struggled with reconciling the occurrences of miracles with the concept of natural law.  Pirke Avot 5:9, states that at twilight on the sixth day 10 things were created.  These include the manna, the mouth of Balaam’s ass, the hole that swallowed Korach, etc.  By saying these exceptional phenomena came into existence during the Week of Creation, they were saying they were part of the “natural order”.


There have been various other explanations for miracles. Some philosophers  attempt to rationalize them, as not really being unnatural events at all – thus you have the explanations of mud turning the Nile red, or that the miracle of the Sea was that the crossing took place at a very shallow marsh and the wind blew the waters aside.   I always find these explanations a bit deflating, the way you do when you find out how a magician does his tricks.   Others state that God is omnipotent and can do anything he wants – so what’s the problem?  Others emphasize the ordinary daily miracles in our lives, that our bodies function, that butterflies migrate, etc and avoid the problem of the extraordinary phenomenon.  Some say miracles occurred before, but are no longer necessary as people needed them to believe in revelation. 


Modern thinkers – tend to fall into two categories -   One trend deemphasizes the “unnatural” aspect by saying the essence of a miracle is in its having a particular significance in history.    Buber states man’s attitude is the essential element in the miracle.   For a person properly attuned, any event may be considered a miracle.  Heschel said what stirred the souls was the hidden in the apparent, not the order but the mystery of the order.   Kaplan represents the other trend which dismisses the literalness of miracles but says the stories are important for the idea of responsibility and loyalty to what is right. 


I tend to agree with Kaplan.  I will tell you a story that was not a miracle that happened about 14 years ago.


When my son was about 8, he decided he didn’t believe in God.  Why?

Because he did not believe in the story that God created the world. Why?

Because he couldn’t imagine a time when there was no world.  God didn’t create it, because it didn’t need to be created.  What did we do with this recalcitrant young man?  We took him to the Rabbi.  And bless him, Rabbi Bulka, told him first of all, he had never met such a smart kid who could ask such questions at such a young age, and then he told him about Myth.

I was very surprised to hear such an answer from an Orthodox rabbi, but also felt very comfortable.


What is Myth?  Myth is not just a story, but a belief system, a structure, that helps us organize and make sense out of experience.   It can tell us how we got here, and how to live our lives.   It makes order out of confusion.   Myths create a master story and create communities.  Religious myths attempt to answer the ultimate human questions.   So, as the Rabbi told my son, perhaps we don’t have to worry about the literalness of the miracle of Creation.  The story is there to tell us to treat each other as family, all descended from the same parents, and to treat the earth as sacred.   Rabbi Neil Gillman, the author of a book called Sacred Fragments, says we cannot see the world except through the spectacles of our myths, so we can’t ever judge if they are objectively true. He also encourages us not to worry about it too much.


Rabbi Gillman cites a homily from The Babylonian Talmud on Deuteronomy 10:1-2. God tells Moses to carve two new tablets out of stone, and says that after He inscribes them with the commandments, Moses should deposit them in the Ark.  The midrash says, this means both the new tablets and the shattered fragments.  Even though they were shattered, they are still sacred. 


Gillman like Kaplan, says that our modern scientific, individualist beliefs shatter the old beliefs that our ancestors held, but that we can never abandon them.   He encourages us to develop our new beliefs out of the sacred fragments of the old. 


So I raise these questions.  I recognize the apparent contradictions, the patriarchal values, the apparently needless suffering, and try, not to justify or excuse it all.  I think most attempts to explain away the points that strike us as awkward usually leave a sense of something lacking.  I think we have to accept sometimes that the Torah is made up of fragments, but that they are sacred.   And so let us sing to Hashem for he is exalted.