Miracles and Meaning

If, 'in every generation, each person must regard himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt,' what is the significance of the Exodus for us, the children of the 21st century?

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The story of the Exodus is a tremendous human drama, an important religious commandment and a founding epic of all of Western civilization. A group of slaves, who have been physically oppressed and spiritually subjugated for hundreds of years, manage to free themselves from the domination of a superpower through a series of supernatural events. They suddenly abandon this civilization, after having caused its destruction, and head for the desert. The slaves have a divine revelation on Mount Sinai and experience the act of being chosen, by means of an impressive ceremony in which they receive the Torah. However, as punishment for their rebelliousness, they are sentenced to 40 years of wandering.

During those years they are exposed to divine miracles, which are always breathtaking and convincing, and human experiences, which are usually unsuccessful and painful. Alongside climactic spiritual experiences there is also a descent into the abyss of despair: The slaves ask to die, and several times their God even considers destroying them. During the course of the journey, the slaves die along with their tragic leader. Only the generation of the sons completes the journey by entering the land of Canaan.

This story continues to be told even today with surprising intensity. Those who are religiously observant mention it all their lives, day after day, in the morning and evening prayers. About half the Jews in Israel mention it every Shabbat, in the Kiddush, the blessing over wine. Almost all of us, about 85 percent, conduct the most important family gathering, the seder, which "stars" this group of slaves. The presence of the Exodus in our lives provokes us into thinking about its relevance. If "in every generation, each person must regard himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt" - what is the significance of the story for us, the children of the 21st century? What does the birth of the ancient nation have that can guide us, deep within our post-modern lives?

Searching for meaning

The Exodus is more than the movement of a tribe in a geographical space, "via the desert, the Red Sea," which took place at a given time. What we have here is an archetype of personal and group movement that wanders in an existential space that stretches from the heteronomic pole, in which we long to rely on forces outside ourselves, and the autonomic pole, which demands of us that we liberate ourselves from these forces and behave in a free and independent manner. People tend to search for the meaning of their lives by turning to an external authority. They expect to be led; it is convenient for them to surrender the inner voice and to receive answers, ready-made, from outside.

Divine interference in our lives by means of a "miracle" reinforces this passive tendency: "The Lord shall fight for you, and you shall hold your peace" (Exodus 14:14). On the other hand, active human confrontation with a situation that requires one to make a choice, while relying on oneself and taking responsibility, is an experience that helps to reinforce the autonomic pole. The story of the Exodus is, among other things, a description of an ongoing struggle between the two possibilities, while outlining the relative advantages and disadvantages of each of them.

God's discourse with human beings has no need of miracles. For example, the Creation and the many divine relationships with the patriarchs that are described in the Book of Genesis are not seen by the reader as miracles. On the other hand, in the Book of Exodus we are presented with a tremendous eruption of miracles. What is their purpose? At the heart of the story lies the consolidation of a group of slaves into a nation, during the creation of a stable identity with its many components: faith, law, culture and politics. For that purpose there is a need for a shakeup that will leave an indelible mark on the cooperative awareness.

The splitting of the Red Sea and the miraculous and public destruction of the army of the empire serves as the wide-ranging infrastructure for the faith of a large community. The majestic event of the receiving of the Torah - "Face to face God spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire" (Deuteronomy 5:4) - creates a convincing source of authority for a tradition that will be preserved for thousands of years. The revolutionary, miraculous intervention is required as a historic milestone that will enable the transmission of a proven tradition from one generation to the next. Fact: The miracles witnessed by a maidservant on the sea serve as a powerful spotlight that casts its light, across many generations, on our own private seder.

However, the story also has another, totally opposite aspect, which is equally powerful. Time after time, the generation of Egypt, the largest "consumer" of miracles in Jewish history, fails the test of experience. In spite of the signs and the wonders and "the strong hand" - the Israelites rebel against God, against their leader, against the law and civilization that they have just acquired. This is the case during the Ten Plagues, on the eve of the parting of the Red Sea, and immediately afterward, on the eve of the giving of the Torah, and immediately afterward, on the eve of receiving the miraculous food from heaven and immediately afterward, and so on. The rebellion is not about petty matters, it is about the essence. It expresses a failure to internalize the new identity: "Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians," they say while the clouds of glory are still surrounding them like a fortified wall. Even before the smoke of Mount Sinai has dispersed, they are already dancing and engaging in licentious behavior around the Egyptian Golden Calf, and calling out "these are your gods, Israel." Even as they are on the threshold of the miraculous entry into the land, they have regrets: "Let us ... return to Egypt." These are not the incidental slipups of an undisciplined group, but a permanent and basic pattern of behavior that causes us to consider the existence of an inner connection, of cause and effect, between the divine miracle and human failure.

Surrender to God

How? The miraculous, supernatural experience creates disappointed human expectations that are not dependent on facts. Its continuation distorts the human understanding of reality. It accustoms us to being passive subjects who rely on miracles. The miracle causes our faith to become shallow, because by relying on it, we eliminate any spiritual challenge. And the main thing: The miracle creates an addiction to the thought that our lives get their meaning when we turn to an external authority, surrendering personal and group autonomy to God. Such an understanding of reality leads to the conclusion that the Exodus has a dual theme. The first, manifest one tells of the power of the miracle as a revolutionary, one-time instrument; the other, which is clandestine, reveals the failure and the limitations of the miracle as an educational instrument over the long term.

And in fact, a close reading of the nation's wanderings in the desert reveals, alongside the drama of the miracle, the drama of personal experience. The story points to the formula for a gradual return to historical time, to adherence to immanent human processes whose existence is key to a meaningful life. The nation learns about all its duties through trial and error. It is presented with rules of behavior, and is required to take responsibility for fulfilling them in their entirety. With the development of the saga in the desert, it turns out that the covenant with God and the formation of an independent identity are not dependent on miracles, but on human activity.

The link between man and his Creator is not a one-way relationship, with God active and man passive, but rather a two-way one. It also includes partnership and an independent human stand vis-a-vis God. A marvelous example of that can be found in the giving of the Torah. The first tablets, which were written by the finger of God, were shattered, and only the second set, which Moses wrote and engraved by himself, survived. Why? The Ten Commandments are a declaration of identity. When imposed only from outside by the finger of God, it is of no use. It ends in the sin of the Golden Calf and in the grinding of the tablets into bits. On the other hand, when in this declaration of identity, man functions as an autonomic creature - "Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first" (Exodus 34:1) - a process of educational experience takes place, which leads to internalization. The declaration of identity is a product of cooperation between man and his Creator. Therefore, the stones are called the "tables [tablets] of the covenant," and they were placed, for generations to come, in the "ark of the covenant."

A preference for human experience and choice over a divine miracle and being chosen by God is also evident from a perusal of the events in the entire Bible. After the Exodus, the open and active presence of God in the biblical story steadily declines. The miracles become less frequent, God's direct speech to human beings is limited and his appearance is replaced by that of messengers he dispatches - angels and prophets. The existence of God depends on the interpretation given by human beings to various events. The overall process, on the manifest level, leads in the direction of the human narrative's domination of the story.

It is interesting that God's last speech in the Bible is in the presence of Job, who tries to express his reservations about the morality of God's activity. After that, in the 10 books of the Bible, God is entirely silent. For example, in the Book of Esther - which, like the Book of Exodus, describes a danger of the destruction of the entire nation - God is not mentioned at all. The miracle of Purim can be explained naturally; its miraculous nature emerges only from the timing of the events and from the meaning that we choose to give the facts. The silencing of God's active voice in history forces us to fuel our faith by means of the historical memory of the miracles performed for our forefathers, and by means of the human and existential situation of ongoing experience.

Never-ending challenge

The transition from a life conducted in the shadow of the need for a miracle - in the sense of the desire to rely on an external force - to a life of experiencing things, in the sense of taking responsibility for our actions, never ends. We are facing the challenge exactly as the generation of Egypt did. We, too, are sometimes tempted to function out of some sort of miraculous disposition. For example, in the 20th century, millions of people were enticed by the various "isms," each of which claimed to be absolute truths and to herald "the end of history." The soil of the world is sour with blood, because many people choose to devote themselves to a miraculous ideology, whether religious or secular, out of an ongoing surrendering of independent and critical thought.

Sometimes we rely on a miraculous figure, we are "waiting for the Messiah." The figure is not necessarily a poor man riding a donkey. He can appear in the form of an educated and well-spoken secular leader, a charismatic rabbi who has da'at Torah (a dictum determined by Godly inspiration) up his sleeve, a strong political personality "who knows how to handle problems," a professional court of law that speaks the language of truth, or a baba - a mystical rabbi in a long cloak, who showers us with blessings. What they all have in common is that they are supposed to run our lives for us, and that they free us from bearing responsibility.

Media's mythical realm

We tend to exchange the complexity of life and the experience it incorporates for a mythical realm of existence: the media. Miracles and the media are equal in terms of their ostentation and the shallowness of the experience. In both, a show of some sort entices us to be drawn into it, and threatens to take over the realm of real life, while negating the distinction between the external and the internal. The parting of the Red Sea, just like pictures flickering on a television screen, creates an experience, but this experience is not personal; it speaks a uniform language. In the face of miracles and the media, man is thrown into the position of the spectator, who is alienated from himself and neglects the position of sovereign participant, who has an active power of choice, responsibility and commitment. In fact, it may be that the obsessive consumption of the media stems from the fact that they enable the alleviation of the tension between miracles and the experience of the way miracles dominate our lives.

Today, as in every generation, we are searching for a social, political or religious shortcut, which will spare us the long road of human experience, with all its crises and pain. We are drawn into a search for mythical figures, ideas or places that will release us from the need to decide, to bear responsibility. We hope, consciously or unconsciously, for an immediate apocalypse, and therefore we give up on initiating small changes along the long road. Out of a miraculous disposition, we liberate ourselves from a full familiarity with reality and from calculated preparation for all its details. The miracle, which according to the Bible itself was designed for its time only, has not disappeared. It has only changed form. And its damage is as great today as it was then.

Avi Sagi is a professor of philosophy, and Yedidia Stern is a professor of law. Both teach at Bar-Ilan University.

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