gratuitous miracles

Parshat Shemot

Not until Book II of the Five Books of Moses do we have an incidence of a gratuitous miracle.

And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. (Exodus 3: 2)

Exodus 3-2

Gratuitous miracles like gratuitous sex or gratuitous violence are unnecessary…  they don’t add  anything to the plot but instead are just thrown in as a ‘freebie.’  Deep into the Hebrew Bible, we realize that all miracles that preceded the burning bush were either functional or medicinal (or should I say; punitive).  Sure, the creation of the world was miraculous, but like the Big Bang, necessary.  Certainly, people are not turned into pillars of salt, but Lot’s wife had been forewarned and like Pharaoh who suffered the ten plagues…  she had it coming.

The Hebrew Bible, especially the first five books are for a religious text, miraculously miracle-adverse.

The Rabbis were so uncomfortable with the miraculous that they attempted to neuter any super-natural biblical event by claiming that all so-called miracles were actually pre-ordained and thus written into the code that God wrote when He create the world:

Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbat eve. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam’s] well; the mouth of [Balaam’s] ass; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses’] staff; the shamir; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs. (Mishna Perkai Avot 4: 8)

10 miracles-avot

Since so much of what is commonly valued in religion and the world of the spirit is the miraculous, it is worth stopping to consider this ambivalence, if not downright adversity to the supernatural .

If it is claimed that the Eskimos have a multitude of words for snow, let us consider the Biblical Hebrew words for “miracle”.

The first word for miracle that we encounter is nes
nes
see Numbers 26: 10

10 and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died; what time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men, and they became a sign.
nes-numbers


Nes
, has less of a sense of miracle and more of a sense of a sign or a lesson.  In fact the word nes is closely related to a test nisayon
nes test
When God tested Abraham at the Binding of Isaac, the word used is nisayon.
1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ (Genesis 22: 1)
nisa-tested

The truth is that the Rabbis intermingled the word nes miracle, with nisayon test:

With ten tests our father Abraham was tested …
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt…
With ten tests our forefathers tested God in the desert…
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in the Holy Temple (Mishna Avot 5: 3-5)

nes-nissim

It turns out that nes and the biblical connotation of miracle that it contains is less a magical break with the laws of nature as much as it is a sign.  As the Ramban (Nahmanides) writes in his commentary to the Binding of Isaac, it is for the one being tested an experience which brings “forth the matter from potential into actuality so that he may be rewarded for a good deed, not for a good thought alone.” A nes is an act which is an outward sign, first to the protagonist himself and secondly to the observer or the reader, that a challenge has been overcome and a higher level of existence achieved. “These aren’t just miracles for their own sake – they are trying to show something, to act as a sign.” [1]

Another word commonly taken as a miracle is ot
ot

This word ot is used on a daily and weekly basis in reference to tefillin which should be “a sign for you upon your hand” (Exodus 13:9) and the Shabbat which you shall keep “for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31: 13).

Again, the connotation of miracle is subsumed under the larger meaning of a sign of a covenantal relationship.

Finally, the word mofet

mofet


which appears for the first time in Exodus 4: 21
21 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘When thou goest back into Egypt, see that thou do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in thy hand; but I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.
mofsim

Unlike nes and ot, mofet is never used as a symbolic sign.  In the Bible mofet is inextricably connected to the shock and awe perpetrated upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  On the receiving end, mofet falls into the non- gratuitous miracle category of a functional and bitterly medicinal miracle. But to the beneficiaries of the ten plagues there is nonetheless a message:

And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever; (Deuteronomy 28: 46)
ot umofes
The root of mofet is unclear.  It has been suggested that its eytomology is from yafe
yaphe

beauty…  “and that it properly means a beautiful or splendid deed”, albeit a bitter-sweet beauty given the suffering of the recipient (e.g. drowning Egyptians).

Returning to our burning bush, we are struck by the lack of a caption.  No mention of a nes, of an ot or even a mofet.  Is this not-consumed burning bush the first and possibly only instance of a gratuitous miracle or are we missing the point?  Was this Moses, the reluctant (and ultimately recalcitrant[2]) miracle-worker of the Exodus in need of a gratuitous miracle? Why not take another track? After all, there’s no mention of a miracle, maybe, for someone less than a Moses, there was no miracle?  Maybe it was all in the eye of the beholder.  Maybe we are seeing this lonely bush through the eyes of one who at the height of his powers saw God in all His glory (Exodus 33: 18).  Maybe in that moment, when time stopped it was that the bush was not consumed and Moses achieved what we all strive to achieve… a moment of wonder.

The narrative continues:

13 And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? what shall I say unto them?’
14 And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’

i will be

Everett Fox in his amazing translation and commentary on the Torah records that according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosensweig God’s answer to Moses “ehyeh asher ehyeh” means “I will be there with you” in the present….  They interpret hayot as signifying presence, “being there” and hence see God’s words as a real answer to the Israelites’ imagined question – an assurance of his presence. .. and may we suggest, also an answer to our question of wherein lied the miracle… in the beauty of the moment.

Fox continues: “It is, however, also possible that ehyeh asher ehyeh is a deliberately vague phrase, whose purpose is antimagical and an attempt to evade the question (Rosenzweig speaks of this as well), as if to suggest that possession of the true name cannot be used to coerce this God.  In this interpretation, it would follow that, just as God is magicless, he is nameless, at least in the conventional sense of religion. (The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox page 270)

With that said…. Let the miracles, gratuitous and otherwise…. begin.
PIC00526.JPG


[2] Moses fatal flaw – he refused to do a miracle Numbers 20: 11

2 Comments

Filed under Bible, Judaism, magic, miracle, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

2 responses to “gratuitous miracles

  1. orna

    So in the dictionary the definition is Gra·tu·i·tous (gr -t -t s, -ty -). adj. 1. Given or granted without return or recompense; unearned. 2. Given or received without cost or obligation; free. 3. Unnecessary …
    and form this it teaches us that although we sometimes pray for miracles it is our deeds that are the true miracles. Only when we actively pursue a goal we get the true satisfaction in the results and thus we call it a “nes.”.

  2. Pingback: no miracles today | madlik

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