G-d Showing Off
Chapter 5, Mishna 5
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Ten miracles were performed for our fathers in Egypt and ten at the
[Red] Sea. Ten plagues did the Holy One, blessed be He, bring upon the
Egyptians in Egypt and ten at the sea."
This week's mishna makes mention of four sets of ten miracles, all of which
occurred at the time of the Exodus: ten miracles performed for us in Egypt,
ten miracles at the Red Sea, the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and ten plagues at
the sea. It's also a wonderful case of Divine providence that we reached
this mishna immediately before Passover.
Moving from easiest to hardest, the Ten Plagues are of course well recorded
in Scripture. They are: blood, frogs, lice, mixtures of wild animals,
animal-afflicting pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of
The ten miracles G-d performed for us in Egypt are explained by the
commentators to be the sparing of us from the plagues affecting the Egyptians.
The ten miracles at the sea are not as explicit -- other than, of course,
the splitting of the sea itself. The commentators, based on the Midrash,
explain that together with the parting of the sea, many other miracles
occurred: the seabed drying and hardening to afford easy passage, the sea
dividing into twelve passageways for the Twelve Tribes, water flowing from
the sea wall providing the Jews with fresh drinking water, etc.
Finally, the ten plagues the Egyptians suffered at the sea were the
punishments they received in the process of drowning, such as the Pillar of
Fire heating up the seabed, G-d removing the wheels of the chariots, and the
continuous jarring of the Egyptians in the water.
The Ten Plagues, as well as the accompanying miracles, stand apart in Jewish
History. Never before or since has G-d performed so much so spectacularly
for a single nation. G-d revealed Himself in unprecedented glory and power,
delivering us from an invincible, implacable foe, and leading us to our
There is an additional aspect to the story which in a way adds even more to
its impressiveness. To some extent the Ten Plagues were not even
*necessary*. G-d had many means at His disposal of saving us from servitude
(of course). He could have easily provided us with magic carpets and whisked
us away with much less drama and fanfare. Or He could have kept any one of
the plagues going until we were well out of harm's way -- rather than
bullying Pharaoh into acquiescence only to have him renege as soon as things
Instead, G-d made a much lengthier saga out of it. (And we'll assume this
was *not* with an eye towards producing a better motion picture.) ;-) In
fact, if we look more closely at the story, Pharaoh wasn't even capable of
bearing so many plagues. As the Torah attests, G-d had to "harden" Pharaoh's
heart by the sixth plague in order to prolong the ordeal (see Exodus 9:12).
Furthermore, the splitting of the sea occurred -- as well as scholars can
determine -- quite close to the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez. G-d could
have easily led Israel slightly further north on a fully land-based route.
Instead, He led them right up to the sea, pinned them between the water and
their enemies, only to then split the sea in climactic drama. Again, G-d
seems to have almost orchestrated events for the sake of heightening the
drama -- certainly beyond what was necessary to save us. What was the idea
Jewish thinkers distinguish between two types of miracles (see Sifsei Chaim
Vol. 2, pp. 5-6). The first type is basically utilitarian: A righteous
person is in trouble and cannot be saved via natural means. G-d will bend or
break a few rules, so to speak, in order to save him or her. These miracles
are not extremely rare occurrences. G-d ordinarily avoids tampering with the
laws of nature -- preserving the concealment of His existence. However, if a
person's greatness warrants -- if he is the type who serves G-d above and
beyond *his own* natural abilities -- G-d may just reward in kind and look
after him beyond the normal allowances of nature. (See _Tales out of Shul_
by R. Emanuel Feldman, pp. 198-201.)
I mentioned this story not long ago, but I think it drives this home well. I
can't remember who this story was said about, but I believe it was a great
rabbi who lived in America in the mid-20th Century. He had been accosted by
a mugger and turned to flee. The assailant shot him point-blank from a few
feet away. The rabbi kept running, only to discover later that the bullet
had lodged itself in his coat and went no further. He insisted on wearing
that same coat with the bullet hole for years to come, long after it wore
out, as a reminder of the great kindness G-d had performed for him.
However, many miracles of our history -- in particular ones with which
holidays are associated -- were of a different sort. You could almost say
they were for the sake of show. A classic example is the miracle of
Chanukah. G-d did not *have* to make one day's supply of oil last eight days
(long enough for the Jews to produce a fresh supply of pure oil). If the
Jews, after recapturing and rededicating the Temple, did not have any more
pure oil, it would have hardly been their fault. They tried their best and
would certainly bring pure oil as soon as it became available. Why eight days?
The answer is that G-d had a message to deliver. There was something He
wanted us to know. The victorious revolt of a small band of devout Jews
against the world's greatest army was not just a successful guerrilla
uprising. It was miraculous: It was the Hand of G-d. G-d Himself had been
operating all along. And there was a message behind it -- that the eternal
light of the Torah shines brighter and steadier than the darkness and
barbarity of Greek civilization (for all its flair and sophistication), as
well as all other "modern" philosophies which have come to take its place.
And the Sages rightly saw in the miracle Divine sanction to commemorate
Chanukah for future generations. Its salvation was not a limited,
short-lived one -- in order to save a few righteous individuals (who would
not remain independent for all that long anyway). It contained a message
which would endure for all time.
And the same is true regarding the Ten Plagues. As we have seen, G-d did not
perform them out of necessity -- as the only means of bringing about
Israel's salvation. They too were for show: to demonstrate unmistakably
G-d's powerful and providential rule of mankind: "In order that you tell
your sons and grandsons how I mocked the Egyptians and My signs which I
placed upon them -- and you shall know that I am the L-rd" (Exodus 10:2).
The great and mighty Egyptian Empire, which for generations had humiliated
the Jews and subjugated them to their service, was now cowering helplessly
and miserably before our all-powerful G-d. G-d had made them His plaything,
an object He could punish, subdue -- and ridicule -- at will. Never again
would the Jewish people see physical might as the arbiter of authority. We
would be subservient to G-d alone. All who challenge G-d's authority would
ultimately become the butt and plaything of His infinite justice.
For this reason Judaism relates belief in G-d very closely to the Exodus. In
the opening statement of the Ten Commandments, G-d identifies Himself as,
"the L-rd your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt..." (Exodus 20:2).
We relate to G-d not merely as the Creator of heaven and earth, but as the
One who, in His greatness and power, delivered us from the bondage of Egypt,
demonstrating His true reality -- and earning our eternal gratitude.
The Ramban (Nachmanides, of 13th Century Spain), in His commentary to Exodus
13:16, elaborates further: Since the times of Enosh (grandson of Adam; see
Genesis 5), there were various sects who did not believe in G-d at all, or
who believed in a creator who either was not aware of or was not concerned
with the deeds of man. Now, when G-d publicly performs a miracle on earth
and takes control of the course of history -- as He did at the Exodus -- all
such notions are swept away. And when a prophet foretells the occurrence of
that miracle (as did Moses), it also becomes established that G-d
communicates with man.
The Ramban continues: Since G-d does not perform open miracles for every
generation -- since not all are worthy of it -- He commanded us to forever
commemorate and memorialize the miracles He did for us -- so that the matter
be firmly established for all generations. Thus, a great number of the
commandments serve as reminders of the Exodus -- Passover, tefillin
(phylacteries), mezuzah, as well as the daily obligation to mention the
Exodus in our prayers. All these serve not only to remind us of G-d's
awesome strength, but to remind us of the wonderful kindness He did for us.
The Ramban concludes with an even more profound message: From the
recollection of open miracles we begin to recognize the hidden miracles of
life -- the providence with which G-d always oversees us -- for this is the
foundation of the entire Torah. Thus, Passover and the story of the Exodus
provide us with the key message of life: that the same G-d who redeemed us
from bondage to freedom continues to watch over us -- whether through
miracles or within nature -- rewarding us, punishing us, and constantly
spurring us to the greatness for which we are destined.
I'd like to wish my readers a happy and kosher Passover!
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.