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Wonder of Wonders

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/19/19 –

     For many of us of a certain age reading this morning’s Torah portion brings to mind the following image.  Charlton Heston stands on a precipice overlooking the churning waters of a vast sea.  With long white hair and a dense white beard he wears a flowing orange robe with black stripes.  In his hand he carries?  A wooden staff!  And he is surrounded by Israelites.  The camera then shifts, and you see the Pharaoh – played by?  Yul Brenner.  He sits atop his chariot with a stern expression, regal, decked out in Egyptian garb, surrounded by the Egyptian army.  

     Charlton Heston yells out to the Israelites ‘The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us,’ and then turns to face the sea, raising his staff towards the heavens.  And then a miracle happens – the waters of the sea begin to part, forming a path on dry land right through the middle of water, and the Israelites run forward, down the embankment in front of them, striding out onto the seabed, gigantic walls of water on either side of them.  

          The scene in the movie is fairly accurate in terms of what is described in this morning’s Torah reading.  Moses and the Israelites are trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army.  Pharaoh does lead the Egyptians, and they begin to draw close.  Moses does actually say the phrase that Charlton Heston cries out in the film – ה׳ ילחם לכם – God will do battle for you!  And according to the Torah text the waters do split, and the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, passing through a dry path in the middle of the sea, the sea that later will close over the Egyptian army.   

     But there is one crucial detail that is in the Torah that is not in the movie – maybe the most important detail in the entire story.  It is God’s response to Moses when Moses asks for God’s help.  And I think you can’t fully understand the miracle at the sea – and maybe you can’t fully understand the way Judaism approaches miracles in general – without taking into account that response from God in this morning’s Torah reading.  Here is what God says to Moses, immediately after Moses calls for help:  מה תצעק אלי – דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו – “Why are you crying out to Me?!  Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to go forward.”    

     God does not say ‘don’t worry Moses, I’ll take care of it.’  God does not, by the way, just simply strike the Egyptians directly, which we must imagine God could have done, and which, when you think about it, would have been much easier.  Instead, God tells Moses to tell the people to go forward into the waters – and this is before  – before! – the waters have started to part.  In a classic rabbinic commentary on this Torah text there is a description of the moment – the Israelites are terrified, the Egyptians are coming, Moses has asked for God’s help, God has told Moses to get the people to do something.  No one moves.  And then one Israelite steps forward into the water.  Nothing happens.  Then the water is up to his knees, then up to his waist, then up to his neck.  And then finally, just at the moment when he is not going to be able to breath anymore, the waters begin to part.

     Its a very Jewish story.  You can ask God for whatever you want.  But hedge your bets.  Don’t sit around and wait for God to do it.  Get started yourself.  Walk forward.  Wade into the water, whatever your water might be.  And keep going, even when the water is up to your waist, or your chest.  And maybe something will happen that will change your life.

     The truth is big miracles are rare.  There are only a couple of them described in the entire Bible.  I would even argue that Judaism, by and large, is not that interested in big miracles.  But it is important in Judaism to recognize small miracles.  And the tradition tries to remind us that we are surrounded by those small miracles every single day.  There is a wonderful line in the Modim paragraph that is part of the amidah prayer, where we say מודים אנחנו לך ‘we thank you God – ועל ניסך שבכל יום עימנו – for the miracles that are part of our lives every day.’  

     Many of you remember the wonderful scene in Fiddler on the Roof just after Motel the tailor asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel.  When permission is granted Motel breaks into song, one of the best known Broadway songs of all time – what is it?  Miracle of Miracles!  The lyrics refer to some of the Bible’s great miracles – Daniel surviving the lion’s den – the parting of the sea, from this morning’s portion – and anyone remember the other?  I think David defeating Goliath.  But then the last lines of the song – “But of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all, is the one I thought could never be – God has given you to me.”

     These are the human miracles, the miracles of daily life that we all too often take for granted.  Did you get out of bed this morning?  Since you are here I am imagining the answer to the question is yes.  If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital bed, unable to get up under your own power, you know that getting out of bed can feel like a miracle.  If you’ve seen a baby born, or welcomed a new life into your lives, into your family, you know how miraculous that can be.  If you found the courage and strength you needed to face a dark and difficult moment of your life, if a phone call happened to come from a friend just at the right moment, you know that too can feel like a miracle.  

     It is a miraculous thing to have your health, to share your life with a family, to have children and grandchildren.  It is a miraculous thing to show up for a friend in need, or to get up and face a new day.  These moments don’t require the parting of a sea.  Instead they come about through human courage, and strength, and love, and faith.  May we all find those qualities in ourselves, and those moments in our lives, over and over again, every single day.  

Here is a video clip of the classic scene with Charlton Heston as Moses – 


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What Really Happened at the Red (Reed) Sea – 7th day Passover sermon text

     The Bible is a book that is filled with miracles, descriptions of events that are supernatural – outside of the natural order of the world as we know it.  In Numbers 22 we have the story of Balaam and his talking donkey.  In 1 Kings chapter 17 Elijah brings a boy back to life, and 2 Kings chapter 4 the prophet Elisha does the same thing.  Elijah also stops rain from falling for a period of 3 years.  In the Book of Joshua, the 10th chapter, Joshua stops the sun in the middle of the sky, where it stays for an entire day without moving.  In Numbers chapter 20 Moses makes water flow from a rock.  In 2 Kings chapter 5 the soldier Naaman is cured of leprosy.  In chapter 6 of that same biblical book the prophet Elisha makes the iron head of an axe float on the water.  And of course who could forget the dramatic description in Joshua chapter 6 of the walls of Jericho coming down?

     And then we have the Passover story, where the miracles seem to come one after another after another.  Moses’ staff turns to a snake and back.  The plagues – the waters of the Nile turn to blood, the locusts, the boils, the cattle, the vermin, the darkness, the slaying of the first born.  But the ‘wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,’ to quote a well known song, has to be the splitting of the Reed Sea that we read about in the Torah this morning.  The 7th day of Passover has long been understood in the tradition as the day on which the Israelites witnessed that greatest of miracles, as at the very moment of their despair the waters of the sea parted before them, allowing them to escape their Egyptian tormenters who would all drown while attempting to follow them.

     Still to this day the depiction of that moment in the 1956 Cecil B. Demill film the Ten Commandments compellingly portrays how dramatic those events were.  Charlton Heston as Moses stands on an outcropping of rock, terrified Israelites all around him.  In what I can only call a Moses like voice he cries out, raises his staff, and the sea begins to split, the rushing waters defying the laws of physics, drawing upwards and away, forming massive walls of water and leaving a wide, dry path through the sea that Israelites can walk on.  It is one of the great scenes in all of film, and even today, in an age of astonishing computer generated video images, there are few scenes that can equal it.

     In the Torah that incredible moment is described in just two biblical verses.  “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.”

     I’ve always felt that in those two verses there are actually two descriptions of the splitting of the sea and how it might have happened.  It is the second description – והמים להם חמה מימינם ומשמואלם – the waters were for them like walls, one on their right, one on their left – that is the miraculous one, reflecting Demill’s vision of the moment in the movie.  This is supernatural, impossible, a true miracle.  Massive amounts of water, held in suspension for hours upon hours, the walls, as depicted in the movie, 30, 40, 50 feet high.  There is only one way this could have happened, and that is because God willed it to happen.  And it was a one time event, its like will never be seen again.

     But the first of the two verses in the Torah, at least in my mind, seems to describe an entirely different set of circumstances.  God drove back the sea ברוח קדים עזה כל הלילה – with a strong east wind, that blew all night long.  As many of you know Becky and I spend some time every summer in Gloucester MA, where Becky grew up.  There is a beach there on the what is called the ‘Back Shore’ where a large island sits out in the ocean, about 50 or 60 yards from shore.  Most days, when the time is right and the tide is low, a sandbar emerges from the water that makes a bridge between the shore and the island and hundreds of people walk out to the island to hunt for sand crabs and shells.  The bridge is there for a couple of hours, and then the waters return – you have to get off the island and back to shore before that happens!  It is not uncommon, walking out to that island, that a stiff wind comes up, pushing the water off the sand, rippling it into the sea on either side.  And I’ve often thought, watching that happen, or walking in that procession myself, that it is probably very similar to what the Israelites experienced at the Reed Sea, at least according to that first verse.

     Along those same lines, just a few years ago, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research performed a study using a computer simulation that there is a point in the Nile River where a coastal lagoon lies just under the waters.  And again, using computer simulation, they showed that a strong wind, blowing for hours onto that spot, could drive the water back, opening a land bridge that would enable people to walk across.  And of course, when you take the wind away, the waters rush back in.  The head author of the study, when interviewed about it, said that the results from the simulations match closely with the description of the event in Exodus that we read from the Torah this morning.  It is in a way a combination of two of our favorite modern sayings:  timing is everything, and?  location, location, location.

     Now as western educated, scientifically oriented people we might be more comfortable with the idea of a natural explanation for the splitting of the sea.  But I want to say this:  just because there is a possible natural explanation does not mean it was not a miracle.   I will tell you that when I walk on that momentary land bridge out to that island in Gloucester, I understand scientifically what is happening.  The tide is low, the sand bar is there waiting to be exposed, the wind adds the rippling effect that makes the waters look like they are being pealed back.  But knowing all that, it is still a breathtaking thing to watch, and when you walk over that sand out to the island that just 30 minutes before was surrounded by the ocean, there is something about it that feels miraculous.  A miracle does not have to be an event that suspends the laws of nature.  But it does have to be an event that in some powerful and profound way makes you feel the presence of God in the world.  

     That is why I like to order of the verses in the Torah.  It is the first verse that gives us the natural explanation – the wind blew all night, and over a period of time the sand was exposed.  The people began to walk across, but as they did they began to experience that moment as a true miracle in their lives, a sign that God was with them, paying attention to their fate, coming to help them in their darkest moment, and as they felt God’s presence the moment felt more and more miraculous, and the second verse expresses that – the great walls of water, suspended on either side, and God’s great hand doing that work.

     That moment left such a deep impression on our ancestors that they not only experienced it as a miracle, but they passed it down to us, through the generations, that we might also feel God’s presence in our lives because of the freedom that was granted to them so long ago.  And that fact that we still do, thousands of years later, is in and of itself a miracle to be celebrated.

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