In this week’s Parasha, Bo, we see the final round of the devastating miraculous plagues that Hashem metes out upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian population with the climactic final exodus as Bnei Yisrael ultimately leave the land of Egypt. The miraculous departure from Egypt occupies a central place throughout Jewish law and Mitzvah observance in general. It is a mitzvah to recall the exodus from Egypt day and night, our Tefillin (which are commanded to be worn in the end of this week’s parasha) contain parchment referring to the exodus and one of the major elements of Tefillin is a sign of this miracle. On Shabbat we say in Kiddush that the Holy tranquil Shabbos day itself is a “Zecher Leyetziat Mitzrayim” – a recalling of the exodus from Egypt and of course all of the chagim from the Torah contain constant reconnection back to the exodus, and many more such examples.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman), in his commentary on the Torah, goes into great detail at the conclusion of this parasha, explaining the deeper meaning behind the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus. Let us focus on and flesh out one idea that he teaches to give us all some soul food as we enter this powerful Shabbat.
After going to great lengths breaking down the deeper messages behind each line in the last few sentences in the parasha, the Ramban mentions something that has become one of his most often quoted teachings. He explains that in the process of Yetziat Mitzrayim (leaving of Egypt) Hashem showed Pharaoh, the Egyptians, the Jewish people and the entire world that He not only created the world but He is also in direct control of all that there is. Even that which seems natural and part of the ‘laws’ of some fixed system is really only a façade hiding the hand of Hashem beneath.
His words are as follows:
“From the great open miracles a person comes to acknowledge the hidden miracles which are the foundation of the entire Torah, as one does not have a portion in the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu until we believe that all of our matters, that which happens to us, all of them are miracles, they have no ‘nature’ in them and no ‘way of the world’, whether for the masses or the individuals . . .”
We see from these powerful words that the Mitzvah of remembering the exodus from Egypt is to serve as a foundation of our Emunah (Belief/faith) – and a constant reminder, present in every facet of Jewish daily life; on our doors, on our heads and facing our hearts (tefillin), as we rise and before we sleep (in the Shema) – that Hashem is running the world. The novelty being taught here is that nature running its course is as much of a miracle as the openly extraordinary turning of nature upside down. The latter just awakens us to who is behind the scenes of the former. As the Sfat Emet writes: (Behar, 5637)
“The miracles and natural things are all one. And in truth, there is not greater miracle than nature . . .”
When nature runs its course, when events seem to fit into the ‘way of the world’ – this the Ramban refers to as hidden miracles. The Hebrew word for a miracle is a Nes. This word actually means a banner or a flag, as in the pasuk “VeKeNess Al HaGivah” – “Like a banner on the hill” (Yeshaya 30:17). A miracle is like a waving flag exhibiting and revealing to all that Hashem is here. It is as though with every miracle Hashem is saying “Hello! It’s me, don’t forget, I am running the world”. Deeper still, a miracle elevates us, like a rising flag, to a deeper perception of reality. With every hidden ‘miraculous’ experience a person learns to perceive Hashem’s hidden hand in their lives and the world in general.
So what then is the difference between the hidden and revealed miracle? The only difference is the ability to deny the source of the event. With a hidden miracle, you are given a greater test. The banner of G-dliness is being hidden behind the laws of nature, and the ‘ways of the world’. The spiritually in-tune will sense the great light beneath the surface, and others will miss it completely. Amazingly, the name of G-d which denotes His being the Source of all power, the Director of nature, is the name Elokim. This name has the same gematria (numerical value) as the word HaTeva which is Hebrew for the Natural world! (Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VeHaEmunah, perek 6). The word Teva (nature)טבע itself shares the same root as the word Matbeah מטבע – which means an impressed coin. Nature bears the impressed stamp of G-dliness in the world; you just need to look at it correctly. But טבע is also the root of the word meaning to drown. One can either be elevated by the wonders of nature and see Hashem’s incredible hand, or one can be lost, sunken so to speak into denial of G-d, seeing nature as the amazing work of some very clever yet imaginary “Mother” (World Mask, R’ Tatz).
It is necessary, of course, for Hashem to hide behind nature. On a simple level this is to provide us with free will. Were there to be revealed miracles in abundance, we would have little choice but to follow the Torah, feeling compelled by the obvious truth of Hashem. Hashem doesn’t want robotic followers who have no choice but to follow His will. The meaningful relationship of man to Hashem is because we make the choice to connect. The existence of the mask of nature, allows us to attribute the extraordinary in our lives to ‘happenstance’, ‘luck’, ‘fluke’ or ‘Mother nature’ and thus choose to ignore His hidden hand in our lives. In fact the word Olamעולם – meaning the world – is based on the same root word as He-elem העלם – to Hide.
It is axiomatic in Jewish learning that when a Sage of the caliber of the Ramban writes, he does so having carefully chosen each and every word, with no unnecessary poetics – everything that is said is of great importance and value. Therefore, when he says that the concept of hidden miracles is the foundation of all the Torah, and that one who does not believe all matters are directed by Hashem does not have a portion in the Torah of Moshe – this is not to be taken lightly. So how are we to train ourselves to reveal the hidden hand of Hashem beneath the mask of the world?
Perhaps this story can shed some light for us:
I was once teaching a high school class about how it is forbidden to listen to and believe lashon hara. We were discussing techniques of how to handle a situation when someone begins speaking lashon hara in one’s presence. One boy exclaimed “when someone tries to speak lashon hara to me I just do this” and suddenly the students all grabbed their ears in pain and shouted to the student to “please turn it off!” I had no idea what was transpiring. Why was everyone suddenly holding their ears and what was this student supposed to turn off? Then the student told me that he had an app on his phone which sent out a high frequency deafening noise. But when you are over a certain age, you can no longer hear it. Once I got over the realization that I was now officially ‘old’ it dawned on me that I had just been witness to a remarkable lesson. You see, the noise was in the air – the sound waves were flying towards my ear as they were to all the students. But although the message was in the air, I had no receptacle to receive it. This is the way any radio works. The radio waves are filling the air – you just need a receiver that is tuned in to hear it. This is the work of seeing the miraculous in the mundane. Tuning in. The banner of G-dliness is being waved in our faces on a daily bases, in fact on a minute to minute bases. All we need to do is be attuned. This is perhaps part of what the Kotzka Rebbe (Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) meant when he famously answered the question of “Where is G-d?” with the powerful words: “G-d is wherever you let Him in”.
The truth is that the only reason for the ‘wow’ of the open miracle and the normalcy of the hidden miracle is the regularity. We become accustomed to things and so the hidden miracles become routine and we become desensitized and blind to their potent spiritual message.
As you are reading this, your heart is pumping life giving oxygenated blood throughout your entire system – from head to toe – each and every second. 72,000 glasses full each 24 hours! Your eyes with which you are scanning this page are doing so with the help of their 125 million distinct rod shape machines (in each eye) that allow you to see by setting off chemical reactions and sending messages to your brain – all in about two-thousandths of a second! And if you have eaten recently, then the small finger-like structures called villi and microvilli which exist in your small intestine improve the absorption of nutrients of the food as it goes through by increasing the surface area of the intestine and enhancing speed at which nutrients are absorbed – when flattened out these villi take up the surface area of a tennis court (!!) and miraculously absorb only what your body needs and the bad stuff continues out. It is no surprise that in Judaism we are supposed to say a bracha for going to the bathroom and this bracha ends with “You Hashem are the Source of all blessing, You heal all flesh and do wonders”. Even the most mundane activity must be appreciated as a wonder of Hashem.
Are these few examples any less miraculous than the splitting of the sea? It is just that they and the millions of other daily wonders are so normal to us that we need to be awoken to hear their incredible constant call of “Mah Rabu Maasecha Hashem” (How great are your works Hashem) to us.
We must learn to tune-in to the wonders around us, to see Hashem in the hidden, to see Elokim in the natural. One fantastic way to do this is through the vehicle of brachot which ensure that we don’t take these things for granted, but we rather channel our pleasure of usage of this world to a sense of gratitude and realization of the Source of that pleasure.
May we all enter into this holy Shabbat, the Shabbat of leaving Mitzrayim, as ready receptacles for the G-dly frequency that shines through the world in which we live.