In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses assembles the Israelites and recounts the past forty years of their experience together. As we know that experience includes the miracles of the plagues in Egypt and the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. “Yet the Eternal has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear until this day”, says Moses to the gathered Israelites.
What does he mean by this? Moses means that while the miracles were happening the Israelites did not realize that they were in fact, miracles. Darkness descended upon the Egyptians, but not in the places where the Israelites lived. The Egyptian first born were killed, but the angel of death passed over the homes of the Jewish people. The Sea split, and the Israelites walked through on dry land and the Egyptians were drowned. Moses says that those experiencing these miracles did not understand that these were miraculous events. Only forty years later, the “until this day” of the above passage, did the Jewish people understand that these were, indeed, miracles. This teaches us that it takes time and distance from the event itself – in this case, forty years – to see the miraculous for what it is.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells the story of Reuven and Shimon, two ordinary Israelites, who never once looked up as they crossed the Red Sea. They only noticed that under their feet the ground was a little muddy – like a beach at low tide.
“Yucch,” said Reuven, “there’s mud all over this place.”
“Bleech,” said Shimon, “I have muck all over my feet.”
“This is terrible,” said Reuven, “When we were slaves in Egypt, we had to make our bricks out of mud, just like this.”
“And so it went, Reuven and Shimon whining and complaining all the way to freedom. For them there was no miracle. Only mud.”
The Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai, who died in 2000, writes about this phenomenon in a poem:
From a distance everything looks like a miracle
but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like that.
Even someone who crossed the Red Sea when it split
saw only the sweating back
of the man in front of him
and the swaying of his big thighs,
or at best, in a hasty glance to one side,
fish in a riot of colors inside the wall of water,
as in a marine observatory behind panels of glass.
I think the poet is expressing in these beautiful words that, seen from the proper perspective, all of life can be recognized as a miracle. But when we are too close to it, when we are experiencing it, we often miss it. Like Reuven and Shimon in our story, we are keeping our eyes down, focused on the task, and, never looking up, or around, we miss it! The poem continues:
The real miracles happen at the next table
of a restaurant in Albuquerque:
two women sat there, one with a diagonal
zipper, altogether lovely,
and the other said, “I kept it together
and didn’t cry.”
The narrator of our poem, however, sees the miracles in everyday life. We wonder about the snatch of conversation he reports he hears from the next table in the restaurant. “I kept it together and didn’t cry”. Was this woman talking about confronting her superior around a work issue? Was she leaving her husband? Was the miracle that she “kept it together” where she expected she might fall apart? Or, is the miracle the narrator perceives the fact that we can share our struggles with sympathetic friends, we can receive comfort and consolation from others following a difficult encounter or situation? We don’t think of that as “a miracle”, but perhaps it is. The poem concludes:
And after in the red corridors
of the foreign hotel I saw
boys and girls who held in their arms
tiny children born of them,
and they held
sweet little dolls.
The poet then moves to the red corridor of the hotel in which he is staying. He sees “boys and girls” holding small children born to them, who themselves hold baby-dolls in their arms. To the older narrator, I think, the young adults he sees with their children are merely, “boys and girls” – children themselves. The baby-dolls held by the children represent the future generation that one day these children will themselves give birth to and nurture. This is the miracle of birth and death in general, and perhaps the miracle of the continuity of the Jewish people in particular.
Think of something that happened to you in your lives, something that, because you were part of it, you saw “only the mud beneath your feet.” Think of an experience that, if you were to take a step back and look at things from a distance, you might say to yourself: “I lived through a miracle. I passed through the sea, on dry land. Only I didn’t see it at the time.” Shabbat Shalom