Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

Natural Miracles

Our parasha presents us with the first seven plagues visited upon the Egyptian people as a display of Divine omnipotence and retribution. Many commentaries both on the Torah and the Passover Haggadah note the repeating pattern of sets of three makkot. The first two were preceded by Moshe’s warning to Pharaoh to release his Jewish slaves or else suffer the Divine consequences. The third of the set was not accompanied by any such warning. In last year’s TorahWeb D’var Torah (On Makkot and Scientific Endeavors), we addressed one approach to the first two makkot of each set. This year, we wish to delve into the purpose of the third, warning-less plague.

Most commentaries explain that after having ignored the Divine word brought by His prophet twice, Pharaoh deserved punishment without prior warning. Perhaps we can suggest an alternative explanation. R. Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, in his Sichos Mussar (Ma’amar 2, 5731), elaborates on Nachmanides’ fundamental principle concerning miracles. According to the Midrash, Yocheved, the mother of Moshe, was born upon entry of the nascent Jewish nation into Egypt, bringing their number to seventy souls (see Genesis 46:26 and Rashi there). Now, the exile in Egypt lasted 210 years. Since Moshe was eighty years old when he spoke to Pharaoh and shortly thereafter the Jews left Egypt (see Exodus 7:7), this directly indicates that Yocheved was 130 when she gave birth to Moshe. R. Avraham ibn Ezra, in his commentary to Genesis (46:23), questions this Midrash. If the Torah describes the miracle of the birth of Yitzchak to Sarah when she was 90, shouldn’t it certainly describe the miraculous birth of Moshe to a 130-year-old mother! Ramban (Nachmanides) defends the position of the Midrash by stating that only miracles that are predicted by a prophet are described in the Torah. Other events, however miraculous they may be, brought about benefit the righteous or punish the wicked, are not recorded. R. Shmuelevitz explains the rationale behind these omissions. Only miracles predicted accurately by a prophet would unquestioningly be attributed to G-d by all observers. Other, unpredicted miracles might be explained away by a variety of rational explanations however far-fetched these explanation might be. The reason, in turn, that not all miracles that occur are patently miraculous to all is in order to preserve Man’s free choice. Whereas he has the option of correctly attributing the source of the event to G-d, he also may choose otherwise. R. Shmuelevitz gives several modern-day examples. A believer would surely attribute the miraculous rescue of the Mirrer Yeshiva of Lithuania through Shanghai to direct Divine Providence; the skeptic would ascribe it to Japanese Consuls and Visas. Whereas the agnostic would explain the lightning victory of the Israeli Defense Forces over the millions-strong Arab invading armies in 1967 to brilliant military planning on the part of the Israeli generals, jet-fighters, and tanks, the one who looks beyond the “veil of nature” would undoubtedly see the “Hand of G-d.” Many have applied the same analysis to the recent Persian Gulf War and other major historic events in our history. Thus, Man himself chooses to see G-d in the seemingly natural. He is not forced to do so.

The makkot in Mitzrayim were clearly meant to increase awareness of the existence of G-d and His involvement in human affairs. The narrative constantly stresses “I am G-d”, “I am G-d in the midst of the land”, etc. Hence, we can suggest that Pharaoh, as representative of his nation, was presented with two distinct opportunities for recognizing the Divine Hand. The first two makkot of each set of three, were predicted by Moshe, the prophet. Recognition of G-d under such circumstances would have been much easier and therefore less significant. (Although, even here Pharaoh failed to do so.) Another unique, more meaningful opportunity was presented in the third makka of each set. These were without a prior, prophetic prediction. Seeing these as acts of G-d would be more penetrating and lasting.

In our Amida prayer, we state “and on your miracles that are with us every day.” This passage serves to highlight the theme developed above. We are charged to remove the “mask of nature” and to see the Hand of G-d both in our individual lives and in the history of the Jewish nation.

Copyright © 2001 by The TorahWeb Foundation. All rights reserved.