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Torah Sparks

January 26, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Exodus 13:17-17:16; Hertz, p. 265; Etz Hayim, p. 399
Triennial Cycle I: Exodus 13:17-15:26; Hertz, p. 265; Etz Hayim,p. 399
Haftarah: Judges 4:4 - 5:31; Hertz, p. 281; Etz Hayim,p. 423

This Shabbat’s Torah Portion Summary

(13:17-22) The beginning of the Exodus, and its route through the desert. The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.

(14:1-14) The Egyptians pursue the Israelites and catch up to them at the Reed Sea. The Israelites panic and Moses reassures them.

(14:15-18) God tells Moses that He will save Israel; they will cross the sea on dry land.

(14:19-25) The splitting of the sea. The Israelites pass through safely. The Egyptians pursue them into the sea.

(14:26-31) At God's command, Moses stretches his hand forth over the sea; its waters close up again, and the pursuing Egyptians are drowned.

(15:1-21) The "Song at the Sea"in praise and thanksgiving to God.

(15:22-26) The "bitter waters" at Marah.

(15:27-16:36) The encampment at Elim; God feeds the Israelites with manna and quail.

(17:1-7) The miracle of the water from the rock.

(17:8-16) The war against Amalek, the archetype enemy of Israel.

This Shabbat's Theme: "Miracles, Meditation and Direct Access"

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Gen. 14:21-22)

  1. On the matter of miracles, everyone is welcome to his own opinion. (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, 2.16.5. Judean general, historian, 37-105 C.E.)
  2. Miracles occur, but food is rarely provided by them. (Nahman ben Yaakov, Talm. Shabbat 53b)
  3. "The waters were split and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall..." Moses outstretched arm brought about the splitting of the sea, which God caused to ha ppen naturally - by means of a strong wind that divided the water. (Abraham Ibn Ezra, Bible commentator, 1089 -1164, Spain)
  4. The reason for a wind rather than God producing an open miracle was to present an element of questionability. In their wickedness, the Egyptians seeing that there was a strong wind scoffed at the possibility that a miracle was being performed on behalf of the Israelites. They were convinced that it was actually only the wind that was splitting the sea and not God. So they plunged down onto the floor of the sea and met their doom. (Ramban, Acronym for Rabbi Moses Ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides. Bible commentator, 1194 - 1270, Spain)
  5. The Emperor of Rome once proposed to Rabbi Tanhum the following: "Come,let us all agree to be one people." "Very well," Rabbi Tanhum answered, "but we who are circumcised cannot possibly become like you, so circumcise yourselves and become like us." The Emperor replied, "You have spoken well; nevertheless, anyone who gets the better of the king (in a debate) must be thrown to the wild beasts (lions)." So they threw him into the arena, but (a miracle occurred) he was not eaten. Thereupon an unbeliever remarked, "The reason they did not eat him is that the lions are not hungry." So they threw him (the unbeliever) in and he was eaten. (Talm. Sanhedrin 39a)
  6. A man should not needlessly expose himself to peril in the expectation that God will miraculously deliver him. God may not do so; and even if a miracle is wrought for him, the man earns demerit for his presumption. (Talm. Shabbat 32a)
  7. All agree that the physical world as we see it is only secondary and peripheral to the spirit. The essence of creation and the true reality is spiritual, but people do not fully appreciate the greatness of the supernatural. A miracle thus shows them the error in this regard (Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Lubavitcher Rebbe. Letter written in 1932)
  8. Every favor which God performs for a person is a miracle. Many a miracle remains unnoticed by the recipient of God's favor. Many a time a person is rescued from danger by the space of a nail's breadth (Zohar, IV, 200b)
  9. It must be realized, that treating awe and ecstasy which religion elicits from the multitudes as evidence of the truth or desirability of a religion is a dangerous procedure. (Mordecai Kaplan, Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers, p. 86)

"Sparks" for Discussion:

The Torah portion Beshalah includes two extraordinary miracles: the splitting of the Red Sea and the production of water from a rock. It seems that miracles offer instantaneous evidence of divine involvement in the world. It lends instant certainty to one's religious belief. In a way, it is a "short cut" to faith, for one feels the immediate presence of God by virtue of a supernatural manifestation.

From Judaism's perspective - is this a desirable religious approach? Would you categorize mysticism or meditation also as a form of gaining direct contact with Divine manifestation (like miracles)? Are they then a form of "instant religion"? Accordingly, would you say that these two types of disciplines are in line with the typical Jewish religious approach? If yes,why is there a certain reluctance of introducing them into our contemporary religious practice?

In regard to the above, consider further these two statements: While the majority of Americans are not theologically sophisticated, they are profoundly sophisticated about professional development, sexual matters, interpersonal dynamics and psychology. This hastranslated into a demand for tools of personal transformation that, while not necessarily theologically complex, have great potential to help a person spiritually and psychologically and give them direct access to the Divine (Avram David, Introduction to "Meditation From the Heart of Judaism, 1997).

Ultimately I see spiritual growth as climbing a ladder. You climb slowly, step by step. With each step you take, you solidify your footing, then move on to the next step. Each step you take up the ladder nourishes your soul. In time, you will feel completely nourished and connected to God. You will have truly met God. (Harold Kushner, "God's Fingerprint on the Soul," Handbook for the Soul, ed. by R. Carlson and B. Shields, 1995).

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