Human nature and the nature of miracles
The watershed of Jewish history is the exodus from Egypt. Over and over again the Torah commands: “Remember the day of your exodus from Egypt.” It is not just an historic event – it is the historic event in Jewish life.
It is the event that made the Jewish people a nation. The memory of that event has enabled the Jewish people to survive the bitter tribulations and exiles they have undergone since Egypt.
The Wild Roller Coaster
The Jewish people began in Egypt at a high level of accomplishment and integration within Egyptian society. However, from this lofty perch of security and success they were soon toppled. They went from accepted and even respected fellow citizens to subjects of abject and cruel slavery.
Historically, the Jewish world is seldom on an even keel. It has always been a series of ups and downs, many times even in one lifetime and generation.
Fortunate is the person who lives in the “up” times. However, even that person has no guarantee that those good times are permanent. The only thing certain in Jewish life is uncertainty.
The Miracle Child
Salvation often comes from the most unsuspecting quarters. Little illustrates that better than the miraculous birth and rearing of Moses.
Moses was a miraculous child from the beginning. He was thrown into the Nile when he was a baby, but did not drown or fall prey to crocodiles. Then, in surely one of the great ironies of history, he was saved by the most unlikely person imaginable: the daughter of the Pharaoh. Pharaoh created the situation that would lead to his own destruction!
Moses should never even have been born in the first place. Tradition teaches that in the Holocaust-like conditions of Egyptian slavery his parents divorced each other, reasoning that it was not a world for a child to be born into. Since Moses’ father Amram was a leader many others emulated him. In effect, Pharaoh’s decree was about to come true through Jewish cooperation: zero population growth. Then, Miriam, Moses’ sister, told her father that what he was doing, by divorcing, was far worse than what Pharaoh was doing. Pharaoh only decreed on the Jewish boys. By divorcing they were decreeing on both the boys and girls. He was committing national self-destruction.
Amram took his daughter’s words to heart (as father’s often do) and remarried his wife Jochebed. Moses was born of that second union.
In Pharaoh’s House… & Beyond
The daughter of Pharaoh gave the young child to his true mother to nurse him. When he was weaned he was brought in to the palace of Pharaoh. Not only was the future redeemer of the Jews saved by the house of Pharaoh, but he was raised there too!
Moses was physically and intellectually gifted in all respects except for one: he had a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10). This is an important detail. Moses was not influential because he was a great orator. There are people who can sell the Brooklyn Bridge. Not Moses. The Jewish people did not accept him or the Torah because he was a demagogue. Hitler was great orator. He moved millions by the power the spoken word. It is a frightening power. However, it can be used for evil. Moses did not have that ability despite his abundance of other gifts.
There are two traditions how long he was raised in the house of Pharaoh: 20 or 40 years. Either way, he was a prince of Egypt for long time. Furthermore, because Moses was never a slave he saw the world very differently from those he was destined to free.
At age 20 or 40, Moses went out, saw the oppression of the Jewish people and was so overwhelmed by the injustice that he slew an Egyptian striking a Hebrew slave. However, the Jews themselves informed against him (Exodus 2:14-15). That is part of the joy of doing something good for the Jewish people. There are always people willing to write letters to the op-ed page of the New York Times. Who is he to kill that poor Egyptian?
Moses became a marked man and had to flee Egypt for his life. According to Tradition, he lived for at least the next 40 years in Africa and became a king. The Biblical account does not record this because it is not writing a biography of Moses. It is teaching something larger than that, as great a person as Moses was.
The Reluctant Redeemer
He eventually came to the land of Midian. According to most chronologies he was 72 at the time. There he met his future wife, Zipporah, at the well and became a shepherd for his father-in-law, Jethro.
One day while attending his flock, Moses came across the burning bush and heard the voice of God telling him his mission in life was to go to Egypt and save the Jewish people. Even though that encounter was the pinnacle of his life, and revealed the very purpose of his existence, he was did not want to take on the mission. Moses was a very reluctant redeemer – which is the best kind.
Nevertheless, God was insistent.
Moses returned to Egypt and undertook the task of:
- convincing Pharaoh to release the Jewish people and
- convincing the Jewish people that they should want to be released, that they had a future — a great historic, eternal mission.
Miracles – Natural and Otherwise
From the time Moses first reappeared in Egypt until the time the Jewish people left Egypt was less than two years. In that relatively short period of time the Egyptian nation suffered all sorts of “natural” disasters.
The thing about natural disasters is that they can be seen as natural or unnatural. Secular historians interpret history as a series of unconnected happenings that are to be judged as random events. Others see the hand of God, so to speak, in everything that transpires. It is the same thing with the Plagues that occurred in the time of the Egyptians: some viewed them as unnatural while others viewed them as natural.
Pharaoh was of the former group. He declared to Moses that he also had magicians and wise men that could make Plagues. When the Bible says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened one way of understanding it is that he allowed himself to interpret all of these matters as natural happenings and accidents.
The component that made his stance increasingly ridiculous was that Moses predicted them all. It is one thing to experience ten natural disasters. It is another thing to have them all predicted precisely – when they will begin and end, exactly where they will happen and why they are happening. That added a new dimension to the entire matter. Indeed, Moses’ mission was not to make the disaster happen but to describe it in advance, to put Pharaoh on notice.
Yet, Pharaoh’s heart remained hard through it all.
The Fanaticism of Leaders
The people were ready to let the Jews go after the third Plague. “Don’t you know that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7), Pharaoh’s advisors told him.
However, the megalomania of a dictator makes it impossible for him to give in. According to Maimonides, wherever it says that God strengthened the heart of Pharaoh it does not mean that He took away his free will, but rather He gave him the stamina to exercise it! Many times we want to do something but are too weak. We buckle under the pressure. Pharaoh, too, would have buckled. However, by hardening his heart God balanced his heart, so to speak, and allowed him to do what he pleased.
The masses almost always buckle before the leadership. The leader’s insanity forces the situation. Hitler led Nazi Germany to the precipice of world domination… and then down an irreversible path to its own destruction, even long after the people and most of his advisors knew it was insane to continue.
The people in Pharaoh’s time were willing to admit defeat. They saw that the events were not just natural phenomena. However, like all leaders safely ensconced in their palaces and fortresses, Pharaoh was the last to admit defeat even as the rest of the nation was suffering and facing utter destruction.
Death of the Firstborn
And then the last, great plague came. Death was literally at the door. There was no house that did not have some dead.
The slaying of the firstborn was the plague that finally broke the back of Pharaoh. He admitted defeat only in a plague that struck him personally – his first born child was killed and his life was also in danger. It was not the miracle of the first-born killings that impressed him, but the fear for his own safety that caused him to free the Jews, a decision that he almost immediately regretted. Even he realized that there was no further gain for Egypt in this contest with Moses and his God.
By then, however, it was too late.