Miracle vs Miracle - Part One
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
This week we read the Parsha of Revelation. Revelation was the most profound
moment in our nation's history. It was a singular moment that will never be
repeated. It was the only time that G-d spoke "face to face" to a nation. It
was the greatest miracle of all time.
In order to understand the importance of Mattan Torah and why I consider it
to be the greatest moment of all time, we need to contrast Revelation with
Kriyas Yam Suf - the Parting of The Red Sea.
Revelation must have been something in order to qualify as "the greatest
miracle of all time." Six weeks earlier, at the parting of the Yam Suf, the
Jews had been treated to an unparalleled display of G-d's majestic might.
Their spectacular "save" from the clutches of Mitzrayim had left them
awestruck and overwhelmed by G-d's actuality. Not only was the venue of the
miracle extraordinary and singular, the profundity of the event was equally
We see this from Yisro's proclamation in the beginning of this week's Parsha,
"Now I know that G-d is greater than all others! Why? Because, His manner of
saving the Jews and punishing the Egyptians revealed His judiciousness and
fairness. The very same mechanism Pharaoh used in his attempt to destroy the
Jewish nation, was the exact mechanism G-d employed in punishing the
Egyptians. They attempted to destroy you by drowning your sons in the Nile
River; therefore, G-d drowned their sons in the Yam Suf! Such poetic justice
executed through the power of nature is absolute proof of a G-d Who is both
the master of nature as well as the standard bearer of truth. There is no
other god in the universe except for the G-d of the Jews!" (Rashi, 18:11)
The first Rashi in the Parsha (18:1) says that there were other events that
influenced Yisro's conversion, not just Kriyas Yam Suf. Rashi referenced
only two of the three opinions recorded in the Mechilta and the Talmud in
R' Yehoshua said, "Yisro was motivated to convert after hearing about
Amalek's unprovoked attack and the Bnai Yisroel's victory."
R' Eliezar Hamodai said, "Yisro was compelled to convert after hearing about
Revelation." (Obviously, this suggests that Yisro came to the desert after
Revelation and that the ordering of the events in this week's Parsha is not
R' Eliezar ben Yakov said, "Yisro heard about the parting of the Yam Suf and
came to join the Jewish people."
We learn from the same Talmudic passage that whether or not Yisro was present
at Revelation is a matter of opinion. Some say he joined Moshe in the desert
before Mattan Torah and others say he came to the desert after Mattan Torah.
(Note the Ramban and Ibn Ezra on this topic.)
Regardless of the differing opinions in the Talmud, the literal record of
Yisro's proclamation and subsequent conversion to Judaism does not mention
G-d giving the Torah to the Jews as an incentive for his conversion.
According to Rashi, the event that seems to have convinced Yisro to join the
Jewish nation was the spectacle of Kriyas Yam Suf.
When we compare the grandeur and message of Kriyas Yam Suf to Revelation,
Mattan Torah seems far less spectacular and impacting. More so, in the
aftermath of Kriyas Yam Suf the Bnai Yisroel burst forth in Shira - song. In
the aftermath of the giving of the Torah the Jews cried out in fear of dying!
"You (Moshe) speak to us and we shall hear; let G-d not speak to us, lest we
die!" (20:16) Following Revelation the Jews did not burst forth in song and
dance. They wanted to distance themselves from G-d. They did not want G-d to
continue "talking" to them. Instead, they wanted Moshe to act as a
go-between. How can Mattan Torah be considered the "greatest miracle of all
time" when the immediate effects were so different?
I would like to suggest that the reaction of the Jews following Revelation is
proof positive that Mattan Torah was the greatest miracle of all time. The
Rambam (Maimonidies) in the beginning of the second chapter of Hilchos
Yisodei Hatorah (The Laws of The Torah's Fundamental Principles) discusses
the Mitzvah of Ahavas Hashem - Loving G-d, and Yiras Hashem - Being In Awe of
G-d. The Rambam considers Ahava as the prerequisite for Yirah. First we learn
to love G-d and then our understanding of G-d grows beyond love and enters
the realm of awe.
(The popular translation for Yirah is "fear." True awesomeness is accompanied
by a sense of nervousness, trepidation or fear. In the classic texts of Musar
and Chasidus it is called Yiras Haromimus - Fear of G-d's exaltedness. To be
fearful of G-d's exaltedness requires a comprehensive understanding and
appreciation of Who G-d is and what He does.)
I would like to suggest that the parting of the Yam Suf was on the level of
Ahava - love, and that Revelation was on the level of Yirah - awe.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of Kriyas Yam Suf the Jews sang Shira because
they had ascended to the level of angels. In the aftermath of Mattan Torah,
the Jews remained 100% human. Angels exist in a perpetual state of Ahava,
while humans must advance to the stage of Yirah. Ahavah is the stage at which
we recognize G-d's loving benevolence. Yirah is the stage at which we realize
that we must emulate G-d and respond to G-d's love.
Angels are non-free-willed creations. They are non-corporal, although they do
have form without physical substance. Their knowledge of G-d is limited;
however, it is far more advanced than the limited intellect of humans.
Ahavas Hashem - loving G-d is recognizing G-d's constant caring benevolence.
The free-willed human is the only creation who can actively engage in
emulating G-d's Chesed (kindness) by doing Chesed. Therefore, the human is
the only creation who can appreciate what it means to be a provider of
Chesed. All other creations accept G-d's loving kindness as a given. For them
Chesed is not earned, Chesed just is. For them the verse, "He opens His Hand
and provides for all living things" is a given. Therefore, they cannot
appreciate what it means to be the giver and provider. However, the human is
the only creation in the universe able to understand what it takes to be a
constant source of Chesed.
If we use the same logic we can conclude that we are also the only creation
able to deny the constancy of G-d's Chesed in the universe. All other
creations only exist within the framework of acceptance and taking. They do
not give beyond the instinctual limits that G-d programmed. On the other
hand, humans who choose to give and do, can deny G-d's constancy by
attributing all consequences to human ability and endeavor. Human ambition
and determination is the cause while success or failure is the effect. "My
strength and the might of my hand are responsible for my great success."
Once the human realizes the extent and constancy of G-d's Chesed he is
awestruck by the unlimited power of His loving care. Because the human is
endowed with freewill he can decide to imitate G-d and initiate acts of
Chesed. (Not so with the angels.) G-d then becomes the scale by which humans
judge their own Chesed, and as such they must be found to be lacking. This
results in the fear filled awesomeness of Yirah.
There is no doubt that the miracle of Kriyas Yam Suf was far more spectacular
than the giving of the Torah. However, spectacle does not always equal
greater. I'll prove it to you.
Kriyas Yam Suf was an event that involved the forces of nature and what
appeared to be a change from the usual and the probable. Nature, removed from
the momentary spectacle of change, is far more spectacular than any other
physical event. The orbits and movements of the cosmos and the constancy of
G-d's absolute, unfailing mastery is beyond miraculous and beyond amazing. It
truly defies description. Yet, we take nature for granted. Therefore, the
size of the spectacle does not define the magnitude of the miracle.
The Parting of the Sea was a change from the norms and therefore spectacular.
On the other hand, Revelation imposed G-d onto, into, and within the norms
and was therefore beyond spectacular. The Yam Suf did not mandate emulation
of G-d - only angelic song. Who could possibly emulate the spectacle of
Divine justice and mastery over all nature? On the other hand, Revelation
demanded emulation of G-d through doing His commandments; or else they would
suffer the total loss of self and purpose within G-d's spoken intent and
plan. At Revelation, nothing was changed and nothing was altered. The world
was as it always had been - with one exception - G-d had spoken! G-d had told
them why He had created the universe and what His expectations were for
humanity. G-d had revealed Himself as having always been there behind the
veil of nature.
(It also explains why G-d revealed Himself in the desert. The desert appears
to be dead, barren and empty. It is almost as if G-d did not finish the
project. However, to the biologist and the observer the desert is as complex
as any other ecosystem on earth. One need only look a little closer in order
to reveal the thriving presence of divinely gifted life and living behind the
facade of emptiness and death.)
After the Yam Suf the Jews were like angels. For one short period of time the
actuality of G-d's manifest power forced them to realize that G-d's love was
given to both those who deserve and those who do not deserve. They understood
that His love and Chesed were constant and by definition their miraculous
salvation from the hands of the Egyptians was undeserved. As such, they could
only sing the song of angels who are always aware of G-d's constant loving
benevolence of which they are the undeserving beneficiaries. (Angels have no
choice but to listen to G-d and do as they are told; therefore, they do not
deserve reward for what they do.) The actions of the Jews up until Kriyas Yam
Suf did not cause salvation. However, for whatever reason, G-d deemed them
deserving of salvation regardless of their actions. Such seemingly undeserved
salvation demanded thanksgiving that could only be expressed as Shira - song.
However, the Jews could not sustain that momentary angelic experience. As
soon as their bellies began to grumble and their throats became dry, they
returned to the status of human. They once again saw G-d in the context of
providing for those who are deserving and denying those who are not
deserving. They did not trust that G-d would always take care of them because
they did not believe themselves to be deserving of His love. G-d's Chesed
became part of the process of reward and punishment, rather than the given
norm of all existence. In many ways the Jews were far more comfortable in a
world of cause and effect that they could understand rather than trusting in
the constancy of G-d's benevolence and wondering what G-d expected from them
in return. (This provided the necessary cognitive and emotional preparation
for Mattan Torah when G-d finally told them what He wanted.)
Yisro on the other hand had a much different reaction to Kriyas Yam Suf. He
had already explored the realms of reward and punishment cause and effect. He
had found all the other philosophies and religions designing illogical and
non-sensical causes in hope of guaranteeing their personally desired result.
However, upon hearing about Kriyas Yam Suf Yisro realized that G-d's constant
benevolence was the product of cause and effect. The Egyptians had been evil
and G-d punished them. The Jews were their hapless victims and they were
saved. There was a Judge and there was justice! There was a standard for good
and there was a standard for bad. All he needed to know was the next step.
What does this Creator, Judge, and G-d want from humanity? What are the
details that define the meaning of good and the meaning of bad? How do
non-angels live within the context of G-d's world? (The answer to that quest
was Mattan Torah.)
Yisro also recognized that the miraculous manner of their salvation reflected
the order of the universe rather than its lack of order. The miracles,
although spectacular, were not random or excessive. They were uniquely
designed to punish the crimes in the most judicious way possible while at the
same time displaying G-d's awesome mastery and love.
Yisro was also not present at the actual miracle. He only heard about them.
Therefore, the immediate impact of the spectacle that had left the Jews
breathlessly overwhelmed by G-d's loving might was not felt by Yisro. He had
the necessary distance to see the message behind the miracle. He was able to
perceive the physics behind the magic. The Jews on the other hand were left
with a momentary awareness of G-d's majestic awesomeness that numbed their
physical and intellectual senses and defied any and all interpretation or
human response. Had they not been compelled by Divine inspiration to join in
song they would have been left speechless.
At the time of Mattan Torah the Jews were not re-elevated to the level of
angels. They remained humans, and only humans. The Torah they were about to
receive had been written exclusively for humans and not angels! As such, the
Jews were left with the contrast between their extremely limited and
undeserving selves and G-d's expectations. Every person was forced to
evaluate himself or herself and ask, "Am I deserving of this mission? Do I
want this mission? Can I do this mission?" If I accept I will deserve life,
if I do not accept I might as well die here beneath the mountain. I have no
other reason to exist. There is no other reason why G-d would have created me
except to accept this mission."
What was the mission? The mission was to be, "A kingdom of priests and G-d's
holy nation." The mission was to represent G-d in the world of nations and
societies and emulate G-d by doing for them the greatest act of Chesed. Their
mission was to be the source of blessing for all the families of the world.
Their mission was to sanctify G-d's name by doing His Mitzvoth and teaching
the rest of the world to believe in Him.
At the foot of Har Sinai the Jews confronted their most basic existence. They
came face to face with their unique destiny. They each saw the Burning Bush
and heard G-d call their name. Their choice was simple. "Do you want My Torah
or not? If you want My Torah you have to listen to all its instructions. If
you want My Torah you must be like Me and become the source of constant
loving and giving. You must become My agents for all that is good and noble
in a mortal existence. I will be your example. Look to me and do as I do!"
The Jews responded, "Yes! We will do and then we will attempt to understand.
However, we cannot emulate You! By comparison to you we are insignificant and
irrelevant. Because we understand the act of giving it is beyond our
comprehension how You give in the manner that You do. We are overwhelmed by
the awesomeness of Your benevolence and constant love. We are humbled by Your
unlimited compassion and ability to forgive. We do not understand your method
of Justice but we trust in the essence of Your goodness.
Simply put we are in awe of You and we are determined to serve You, but
please let us learn from Moshe. Let us hear Your intentions and wishes from
the mouth of a human with whom we can relate. Otherwise, we fear that we will
be undeserving of our designation as Your kingdom of Priests and Your holy
nation. We fear that we will never be able to match Your expectations and we
will surely die!"
Moshe served as a buffer. Moshe became the Ish Haelokoim - the Man of G-d -
who represented G-d in all manners to the Jewish nation. It was exactly as
Moshe himself had requested at the Burning Bush, G-d would speak to Moshe and
Moshe would speak to the people. However, it did not have to be like that.
G-d was willing to speak directly to the people if only the people had been
willing to listen.
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.