October 22, 2019

The Real Miracle – Eighth Day Passover

Sometimes when people find out that I am a rabbi, they ask me whether I actually believe in the Bible, for instance the parting of the Sea of Reeds. I admit that the depiction recorded in the book of Exodus and elsewhere in the Bible is not likely to be historical.

Sometimes a nearby person who overhears that conversation will relate that they read a book that shows that the 10 plagues and the parting of the Sea of Reeds could have been a natural phenomenon. That is an interesting idea, but that idea nevertheless assumes that the Exodus depiction is very incomplete. The Bible does not tell us, for example, that an earthquake that destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete caused a tsunami that caused the water of the Sea of Reeds to retract and then flood back in at the very moment the Egyptians entered the dry seabed in hot pursuit of runaway slaves. People say, “Maybe God caused that earthquake.” Maybe so, but that is not what the Bible says. We are talking about the believability of the Bible.

I actually do think that major historical cataclysms do find their way into scripture. A case in point is the Great Flood that many other ancient Near Eastern texts record. It is very likely that when the natural barrier that separated the Mediterranean Sea from the great geological depression that is now called the Black Sea eroded, the Mediterranean flooded in and destroyed all human and animal life in its path. Ever since that cataclysm, ancient civilizations tried to find out why and how this happened, the Bible included. The Bible tells the Noah story — that this Great Flood happened because of human destructiveness. The event led to a narrative.

Perhaps there was an earthquake and tsunami that ended up in massive casualties to the Egyptian army, not unlike the Divine Winds (kami-kaze) that wrecked the Mongol fleets aimed at Japan in 1274 and 1281. It is human nature to take great events and fit them into a grand narrative that orients our lives. All of this as a preface to say: it is not the event that counts, but the narrative. Whether the Sea of Reeds parted as is told in the Bible is a question of curiosity. What the parting of the sea means in the biblical story is a question of religious concern. As a non-Orthodox Jew, I am only mildly curious about whether things happened just as the Bible says they did. I am much more interested in the religious meanings in which those events are embedded.

According to our tradition, the parting of the Sea of Reeds happened on the 7th Day of Passover (observed in the Diaspora in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, and Ohr HaTorah, as both the 7th and 8th days of Passover.) It is that narrative, according to the Talmud, that we are remembering this Friday and Shabbat. How does one observe this holiday? I don’t recommend wondering whether it happened just as the Bible says it does. I recommend focusing on the narrative, the literary dimension.

One way to consider this narrative is to sit quietly for a moment and imagine that if it really happened as the Bible tells it, what it would have been like. Egyptian foot-soldiers, horsemen and charioteers bearing down on us, the choppy Sea of Reeds in front of us. Feeling desperate and afraid. From far off in the distance, you see Moses raising his staff, and the sea parts. Everybody hurries and runs into the dry seabed between the two walls of water. This is by far the most amazing sight you have ever seen. Everyone gets across, and then the Egyptians enter the seabed. Vicious faces on the men and horses snorting with laborious foam. For some reason you are calm.

From the other side, you are watching the mountains of water collapse onto the Egyptian soldiers. You feel sorry for them, but you then realize that had they caught up with you, they would have mercilessly slaughtered you, your family and your people.

In this narrative, you realize: this miracle was done for me, for us. You shudder. The God of the Universe who can hold back the sea rescued us. Our lives must have some purpose. We must be here for a reason. You hope that later generations don’t forget this. We are here for a reason.

Some time later, you hear that people have memorized what happened, memorized poems composed by Moses and Miriam. You hear that once a year the people are supposed to gather and tell the story, for all generations. You think this is a good idea and you hope it’s true that this telling of the story will continue for all generations, but you doubt it. People remembering what happened hundreds of years later is more miraculous than the sea standing on its hind legs. People remembering that life has purpose? Not so likely.

Really, people remembering this great moment, like three thousand five hundred years from now? Even God could not pull off that miracle. But you hope anyway.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy 7th/8th Day Passover

Rabbi Mordecai Finley