Across the Sea

Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt and ten at the sea.
— Ethics of the Fathers 5:5

Name the last miracle that happened to you.

Some of us may say, “This morning when I woke up.” Some people may list many relatively prosaic things that happen in the course of an ordinary day which to them are nothing short of miraculous: a beating heart, a child’s smile, a safe and loving home, a good job, a good friend.

Others may dismiss the question outright. “I don’t believe in miracles.” That’s that. With one curt phrase, the skeptic puts the matter to rest.

This week’s Torah reading leaves us high and dry, quite literally. We left Egypt, with a final and dramatic break: the splitting of the sea with all of its magnificent tension. The Egyptians on their chariots were in hot pursuit of us, realizing that their labor forces had just exited. The Jews looked forward to the sea and backwards to their captors and at once cried out to God over their ill-fated future. Moses tried to calm them by asking them to observe God’s might, using a set of passive verbs: “Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” [Exodus 14:13-14]. They needed only to stand and watch their deliverance. After all, this was their role throughout the Exodus story. In Egypt, they were not agents of their present or their future.

God had different plans for them. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground,’” [Exodus 14:14-15]. This was not an occasion to stand on the sidelines. It was finally time for them to make history with two short words in English and one in Hebrew: “Ve-yisa-u,” Go forward. Jump into the uncertainty because only the leap of faith can change you. Moses, representing their complaints to God, was told to stop shouting and move forward. We can visualize the choking dust their wheels produced as they sped through the desert only to be met with the trouncing powers of water unabated.

It is this human agency that I believe explains two very odd teachings in Ethics of the Fathers, an ancient collection of adages. In 5:5, we read, “Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt and ten at the sea.” Not stopping there, the next mishna seems to reiterate the statement without adding anything new except that one statement was about the Israelite experience and one about the Egyptian experience: “Ten plagues did the Holy One, blessed be He, bring upon the Egyptians in Egypt and ten at the Sea.” There are a few tens we might not be so sure of. We are sure that there were ten plagues for the Egyptians but not so sure what constitutes ten miracles for the Israelites. We are also not sure in either statement, what ten miracles or ten plagues happened at the sea.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this expands the question: “We have but scant knowledge of these ten plagues which struck the Egyptians at the Reed Sea.” He seems equally unsure what miracles happened to us but concludes that we “remained untouched by the plagues with which the Egyptians were stricken.” This could be a reference to a midrashic reading that says that for every plague on the Egyptians, a miracle was performed for the Israelites. The problem is, of course, that none of this is contained in the biblical text.

But it may be a bi-product of a miracle mind. What’s a miracle mind, you ask? When a person has an experience of a particularly extraordinary nature, he or she may become aware not only of its large implications but also of its many smaller component parts. As a result, these, too, take on a miraculous character, expanding and amplifying the experience, as Walt Whitman wrote, “Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.”

Each miracle is not one miracle but many. Ten is a number suggesting abundance. Each Israelite experienced this momentous event within the lens of a myriad of breath-taking parts. That can happen to us when we take the time to note our blessings not with a big brush but in small, detailed and specific ways.

Do you have a miracle mind?

Shabbat Shalom