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.