Looking for the Man Behind the Curtain

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Jesse Abelman

In the aftermath of the splitting of Yam Suf, after the Israelites have been saved from almost certain death by G-d’s great hand splitting the sea, we are told:

 . וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה בְּמִצְרַיִם, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם, אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיַּאֲמִינוּ, בַּיהוָה, וּבְמֹשֶׁה, עַבְדּוֹ

Israel saw the great hand which G-d had used against Egypt, and the nation saw G-d, and they believed in G-d, and in Moshe his servant.

Moshe was concerned with the belief of the Israelites long before they watched their enemies drown in the sea. In Shemot 4:1, after being told to approach the elders of Israel with the message that G-d had sent him, Moshe answers, “They will not believe me, and will not listen to my voice.” Moshe, quite reasonably, does not think that it is wise simply to approach a group of people and say “G-d sent me, now do as I ask.” G-d therefore gives him a series of miracles to perform, to provide evidence that he was in fact a prophet. This has the desired effect: in 4:30-31 we are told that, “He performed the signs in the sight of the nation. Then the nation believed…” Belief, it seems, is the result of examining evidence, specifically the evidence of miracles, supernatural events which prove that G-d must be acting. Both on the shores of Yam Suf, and when Moshe first approaches Israel, they see G-d’s power to act, whether by transforming a staff to a snake, or by moving the powerful waters of the sea at His whim, and they believe. But what do they believe, and what is the relationship between the evidence and their belief?

According to Rashbam, after the events on the sea shore they now believe that G-d will not let them die of starvation, something they had feared before they crossed. It was, indeed, the answer to to they question they had asked immediately before the miracle, trapped between the sea and the chariots of Egypt. Moshe told them, “Do not fear, stand and watch the redemption of G-d which he will do for you today.” So they watched the redemption and they saw that they need to fear, and so they believed… for two verses. Immediately upon leaving the sea, they arrive in Marah, where they could not drink. And so they complain: what will we drink? Their faith evaporated rather quickly, if Rashbam is right. (Though there may be a psychological insight here. If my faith in G-d is only based on what He can do for me, then He must constantly do for me, if my belief is to continue)

Ibn Ezra thinks that they believe that G-d is real, and that Moshe is his servant, who only does as he is commanded. This perspective has the advantage of recognizing the pivotal nature of this moment in the history of Israel, recognizing the gap between the splitting of the sea and all prior miracles. He also rather sharply recognizes the slippery nature of evidence for G-d’s existence. In chapter four they believed, but what they believed is undefined by the pesukim. They watched Moshe and Aharon perform small miracles for them, and then for Pharoah, some of which Egypt’s sorcerers were able to match. They watched as the power of these miracles grew, as Egypt was struck by plagues, many of which were enacted by the hands of either Moshe or Aharon. Did they believe in G-d? They believed that someone with power was on their side. Only at this moment do they fully recognize that this is a power beyond what any human can muster, and that Moshe must be acting on behalf of a greater power. But what is the result of this faith?

When Moshe retells the story of the spies’ reconnaissance mission into the Land of Israel, and their fears about conquering it, he explains that the root of this fear was that, “You did not believe Him.” This disturbing lack of faith was at the base of the great sin that kept Israel out of their land for forty years. Not even two months after the splitting of the seas, the same group of people whom Ibn Ezra thinks believed in the reality of G-d, and understood the difference between His servant and Himself, manufactured a golden calf to worship in some fashion.

Where does this leave us? If, as the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz was fond of noting, the generation that witnessed the splitting of the sea also created the golden calf, how can a generation where G-d’s hand is less visible hold on to faith in Him? I do not have an answer to this question, but I would like to suggest that the very texts which raise the issue also provide us with some hope. I began by saying that in both of the cases in Shemot where Israel comes to believe, it is predicated on miracles.  Ibn Ezra suggests that until the splitting of the sea, it was not necessarily clear to them who was performing the miracles. The splitting of the sea provided the evidence that it was G-d Himself. Faith based on evidence is always subject to revision in the face of new evidence. With each new miracle Israel had to ask, “Is this truly a miracle of G-d, or is it just a magician’s trick?” In a time when the evidence for G-d does not come from signs and wonders which flout nature, but from the nature of the world as He created it we are, paradoxically, freed from asking “Is G-d the author of this particular wonder?” We no longer see G-d’s great hand acting directly in the world. But, as we have seen, even when He did act directly, his hand was not always easy to recognize.  G-d is hidden, yes, but he was always hidden, behind a curtain created by charlatans like the sorcerers of Egypt who would claim His power for their own.  When we have no expectation that he will reveal himself directly, we are free to seek him out without such distractions.

Rabbi Jesse Abelman (SBM 2009) is working towards a Ph.D in Medieval Jewish History at Yeshiva University and teaches at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

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