When I think about God splitting of the sea I’m reminded of the story of Joey who when asked by his father what he learned in Sunday school explained that Israeli engineers laid pontoons across the sea so that the Israelis could cross over safely, attack the Egyptian army and win the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Then Joey told his father that the same Israelis snuck back and laid charges under the bridges so that as the Egyptians crossed the bridges, they exploded and the Egyptians drowned.
Joey’s father said: “You didn’t learn that in Sunday school?”
Joey confessed: “No Dad, but you wouldn’t believe me if I told you what my teacher really told us.”
To children and adults alike, the parting of the Sea of Reeds in the Exodus story is incredulous. What to make of it as it defies reason? Wouldn’t a more relevant liberation story be Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Kings “I Have a Dream” speech, Natan Sharansky’s address to the sentencing Soviet court, or Israel’s Declaration of Independence?
The Kotzker Rebbe said: “Whoever believes in miracles is a fool; and whoever does not believe in miracles is an atheist.” Is there no middle ground?
How ought we to read the Exodus text?
Here’s another way.
Nachshon ben Aminadav, a little known figure in the Exodus story, took matters into his own hands and as the Egyptians advanced and Moses prayed Nachshon jumped into the waters and started swimming. The Midrash says that Moses’ faith and Nachshon’s activism persuaded God to split the sea.
I’m reminded of the story of the man caught in a flood. While standing on his roof he prayed that God would save him. In the next hour 3 helicopters and 3 boats arrived but he refused them all claiming that he’d rather wait for God to save him. When the flood waters engulfed him he complained bitterly to the Almighty: “I’ve been a good man my whole life, but when I prayed to You to save me, you ignored my plea!”
“Nebesh!” God screamed, “I sent you 3 helicopters and 3 boats. Next time, help yourself?”
So – what’s a miracle? Philosophers answer the question in the negative; what isn’t a miracle? Judaism teaches that a miracle isn’t the radical transformation of the natural world. Divine wisdom and goodness lie not in rupturing God’s reign of universal law, but in the reliability of the steady order of the world.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis put it this way: “Faith isn’t dependent on miracles….miracles depend on faith. And faith, far from blind, sees life’s deeper truths.”
However defined, no miracle without faith is possible. Rabbi Abraham Heschel noted that a miracle has less to do with great historical peak events as it does in our consciousness of what lies before us at all times: “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the Divine margin in all attainments.”
Rabbi Akiba was challenged by the pagan Tineus Rufus: “Whose deeds are greater, those of God or humankind?”
Akiba replied: “Greater are human deeds.”
The pagan asked how he could make such a claim.
Akiba brought sheaves of wheat and loaves of cakes and asked, “Which are superior?” The great sage answered his own question: the loaves of cakes excel because they required a human being to take the wheat and make something life-sustaining.
The lesson of the Sea of Reeds isn’t in the splitting of the Sea. It’s in our conscientious capacity to take action and transform the world.
As we prepare Pesach this week, our nation’s teens marching for reasonable gun control this past week is a great example of how we humans can transform ourselves and our world.
THAT is a miracle.
Chag Pesach Sameach!