Va’etchanan: Being mindful of miracles

Va’etchanan: Being mindful of miracles

From a theological point of view, perhaps the greatest sacrifice we make by not having faith, or not having enough faith, is missing out on miracles. After all, on a primary level miracles are an affirmation that God is a part of our lives. But fully appreciating the miracle is also a reflection that we are open to God’s influence in our lives.

Parashat Va’etchanan offers insight on miracles, but more importantly, on the way we can perceive God’s presence.

Take for instance the response offered in Deuteronomy 6:20-25 to the question (that also appears in the Passover Haggadah), “What mean the exhortations, laws, and rules which the Eternal our God has enjoined upon you?” The answer includes mention of “marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt,” before connecting the miraculous plagues to observing the commandments. In other words, the miracles our ancestors witnessed in Egypt were unmistakable. They were communal. They were transformational. They so overwhelmingly presented the case for God’s existence and beneficence that the only plausible reaction would be continuing the relationship. The ongoing relationship will not be based on miracles, though, but instead through commandments. In some cases the most miraculous part of miracles is not that they alter the course of nature, but that they alter our behavior.

In contrast, the miracle in Deuteronomy 5:6 is a miracle of individual perception. In beginning his repetition of the Ten Commandments, Moses says, “I the Eternal am your God.” It is clear from the context that Moses is speaking to the people about an event during which God spoke to the people. Yet the Hebrew word for your God, Elohecha, is in the singular. Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz said that this suffix refers to Israel collectively and at the same time to each Israelite individually. Citing the Midrash he says “Even as thousands look at a great portrait and each one feels that it looks at him, so every Israelite at Horeb felt that the Divine Voice was addressing him.” According to this, the experience at Horeb (Sinai) was twofold: God’s voice was heard by the Israelites, but each Israelite heard it individually and personally. This enabled them to take the words to heart and commit themselves to the covenant.

And yet God’s words are not always so easy to understand, as is also evidenced in Moses’ repetition of the Ten Commandments. Much of the text is the same as the version of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus chapter 20 which takes place at Mount Sinai 40 years earlier. There are, however, some key distinctions, one of which can be found in the commandment relating to Shabbat. In Exodus the first word is Zachor, remember Shabbat. In Deuteronomy, it is Shamor, keep Shabbat. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, wrote of this disparity that both words were miraculously pronounced together by God, though the human mouth and our ear cannot duplicate it. (This interpretation is then poetically expressed in the first verse of the Kabbalat Shabbat song “L’cha Dodi.”)

Imagine a miracle so subtle that it takes 40 years for all the evidence of it to be revealed. In fact it was so subtle that the human senses were incapable of absorbing it. Rather it had to be explained by sages who knew where to look for and interpret the clues that it was even there. But in learning about this miracle that we will never fully appreciate, we can fully appreciate that there are several facets to Shabbat, including acting and abstaining, preparing and enjoying. This can lead to closeness to God even if the original enunciation of those words cannot.

Miracles are a function of perception. Sometimes a group of people will experience a miracle collectively. Sometimes they will hear it collectively but experience it individually. And sometimes they will not actually experience the miracle at all, but instead will reap the benefits of merely knowing that the miracle happened on an imperceptible level.

In all these cases, the perception of the miracle transforms the individual by bringing God’s presence closer.

Though we may never fully appreciate the miracles around us, let them never go unnoticed. Whether in the moment, right after, or years later, let us give thanks and let God’s influence permeate our lives.