Natural and Supernatural in the Rest of the Exodus

Three Nisan

We want the supernatural to declare itself, but our commentators see Hashem as hiding His presence sufficiently that even the most blatant miracles can be seen as natural. Looking outside the plagues for examples of that will remind us that part of the greatness of our forefathers and Patriarchs was their wisdom in finding the God Who hides. To realize that the world could have looked natural to our forefathers reminds us that we see God, even in His most blatant appearances, only if we are open to it.

The Patriarchs Didn’t Experience Hashem Suspending Nature

In 6;3, Hashem tells Moshe He never revealed Himself to the Patriarchs, the Avot, with the four letter Name we commonly pronounce Adonay. Ramban accepts Ibn Ezra’s view that that Name signifies Hashem’s operating above/outside of Nature. While Hashem saved the Avot from famine and other troubles, it happened naturally, such as by telling them to go to places where the famine did not reach.

(This seems to contradict the Talmudic tradition, Pesachim 118a, that Avraham survived Nimrod’s furnace, a story Ramban himself mentions in Shmot 20;6. I do not know where or whether he addresses the discrepancy.)

The Exodus will be different, Moshe is being told, in that Hashem will make known this Name, meaning that the miracles of the Exodus will tear down the laws of Nature to redeem the Jews. Before that, and many times since, Hashem orchestrates events in ways we can explain naturally, we might say scientifically. Whole eras, one generation after another, might live in a world that operates with the regularity that fools us into assuming that it’s all natural. Only when the four letter Name is being expressed does Hashem break the rules, not work within them.

The Avot’s leapfrogging the obvious to the fuller picture might be what made them worthy of founding our nation. The Exodus was for the rest of us, who fail to see Hashem in Nature. One time, Hashem gave us a Nature-breaking, four-letter-Name-expressing set of events to sustain us in following our forefathers’ path even when that Name does not show itself. Our memories of Egypt and the Exodus aren’t only about the events, but the Hashem they remind us to see even when it’s not easy and obvious.

The Importance and Esotericism of Hashem’s Names

The issue of Hashem’s Names goes beyond how hard it is to see Hashem’s involvement in the world. In 3;15, Hashem speaks of the four-letter Name as His Name “לעלם, le-olam, forever.” The word is spelled defectively in the Torah, without a vav, creating a combination of letters that can be read as le-alem, to hide.

Rabbinic tradition had it that that hints at the fact that this Name is hidden even in its pronunciation, read differently than written. Kiddushin 71a tells of Rava’s intending to reveal the true reading of that Name publicly and regularly, despite the prior practice of teaching it to worthy students only once or twice every seven years. He thought it important enough knowledge to share with as wide an audience as he could reach. An elder warned him not to, and taught him this verse, with its implication that this Name is not supposed to be public property.

The story shows the balance the Gemara believed in striking between spreading vital information and keeping esoteric that which is too sophisticated for the broad public. If we link this to the Avot never having seen the four letter Name, we might say that few of us are vouchsafed an understanding of when and how Hashem breaks through Nature, despite our invoking the Name that refers to it multiple times a day.

For us to come close to reliving those times, we’d have to get better at seeing Hashem’s impact when operating within the laws of Nature, and be able to imagine what it would look like when the four letter Name is functioning. Others around us will insist that no, this too is natural, and we will have to choose how our response. Will we be able to reject overweening naturalism and recognize Hashem, Who took us out of Egypt?

The Repeat Command to Return to Egypt

After the burning bush, Moshe returns to Yitro’s house. Tradition explains that he had committed to working for his father-in-law, and felt he needed permission to leave. While there, Hashem appears to him again, at 4;19, to tell him to go back to Egypt, and reassures him that all those looking to kill him had died.

Moshe apparently needed that reassurance, was not automatically confident that he would be given supernatural protection, even though Hashem had designated him as the prophet to lead the Jews out of Egypt, spokesperson for the upcoming demonstration of Hashem’s nature-smashing four-letter Name. Nor does Hashem disagree; He tells Moshe that those seeking to kill him have died, not that He, Hashem, would protect Moshe from them. In the midst of the most supernatural events in history, Moshe correctly has to be aware of when he can and cannot rely on the supernatural.

Room to Misunderstand

When Moshe first came to Par’oh to free the Jews, Par’oh decided the people had too much time on their hands and ordered his overseers to stop providing building materials. Jewish leaders were punished for the people’s failure to meet their quotas, and in turn chastised Moshe and Aharon for increasing the nation’s suffering. Moshe passes their complaint along to Hashem.

Ramban on 5;22 wonders at this, since Hashem had told him, twice, that Par’oh would not yield right away. He reads Moshe as having understood that he would say his piece, Par’oh would refuse to listen, and the plagues would descend, one after the other, until the Egyptians relented.

The actual plan was for matters to percolate, both before and during the plagues. Ramban thinks, for example, that Par’oh delayed hearing the Jewish leaders’ complaints about the new work rules. He cites Shmot Rabbah, Parashat Shmot 5;19’s claim that Moshe returned to Yitro’s house for six months, and then was told to return to initiate the plagues and redemption in earnest.

Part of reliving those times is to imagine ourselves hearing Moshe and Aharon’s wild claims of redemption, being convinced by flashy signs they offered, turning water into blood and a staff into a snake. But then watching their first foray fall flat, leaving us worse off for several months, including a time when Moshe left Egypt, which could easily appear to be an expression of despair.

For how long could ordinary Jews retain faith in Moshe and Aharon and their mission? What about us?

The First Victory Over the Sorcerers

The second time Moshe and Aharon come to Par’oh, 7;10-12, Aharon and the sorcerers turn their staffs into snakes, but his eats theirs. Rashi fastens on the verse’s speaking of the staff eating theirs, claiming that this happened after Aharon transformed the snake back into a staff. At this early point, when the sorcerers were sort of keeping up, Rashi thinks there was already enough of a difference for a sensitive observer to realize Moshe and Aharon were speaking the greater truth.

Sforno heightens that contrast, arguing that only Hashem animates the inanimate. The sorcerers could only make their staffs look like snakes, not actually come alive. When Aharon animated his staff, everyone there should have known it was not sorcery.

The Supernatural at the Splitting of the Sea

Commentators’ views of the Splitting of the Sea add one final set of opportunities to add to or detract from how supernatural the events would have looked. In 15;2, the Jews says זה א-לי ואנוהו, this is my God and I will praise Him. Rashi writes that the Jews speak of “this” in celebration of seeing Hashem so clearly as to be able to point a finger. Kli Yakar adds that the essence of שירה, Shirah, song, is being able to identify real world events as so clearly the Hand of Hashem that we could point, as if an actual Hand manifested before us.

Ramban, in line with we have seen, is more equivocal. He notes that while Moshe was told, in 14;16, to wave his hand over the water to split it, 14;21 tells us Hashem brought a strong wind the whole night. Ramban thinks that was deliberate, the veneer of the natural luring the Egyptians to convince themselves it was only the wind.

He reads 15;18, “ה' ימלוך לעולם ועד, Hashem should reign forever” as expressing the hope that in all generations Hashem will be as clearly revealed as at the Sea. Before we see how he thinks Hashem was so clear, we should pay attention to the fact that he thinks it. For all that he read various Exodus events as natural-looking, he thought anyone living through those times should have understood Hashem’s role in what was happening.

That other way, for Ramban, was that Hashem saved those who serve Him and punished those who rebelled against Him, as at the Sea. That’s not a useful standard in most generations, where apparently righteous people are oppressed or suffer and apparently evil people succeed, at least temporarily. Yet it was that element of the Splitting of the Sea, Hashem’s showing clearly that He helps His servants and punishes those who rebel against Him, that Ramban saw as the fullest revelation of Hashem we could expect. Full enough that it should have stood as the eternal proof of Hashem’s continuing involvement with the world.

Conclusion: Spotting the Supernatural and Learning From It

The complications in spotting even when Hashem’s Nature-shattering Name reveals itself seem to me an embodiment of Hoshea 14;10’s comment,מי חכם ויבן אלה נבון וידעם כי ישרים דרכי יקוק וצדקים ילכו בם ופשעים יכשלו בם, Who is wise and will understand these, insightful and know them, for the paths of the Lord are smooth, the righteous will go on them and the sinners will stumble on them.

The righteous spot and are guided by Hashem where it is not obvious. Sinners ignore the Divine staring them in the face, hewing to their road to perdition.

We can test ourselves as to where we would fit along that continuum, one more way to help us put ourselves fully back in those events. How unnatural would an event have to be-- one which demanded we change our commitments and values--before we’d admit Hashem was directly involved? Would we do better than the Egyptians? We hope so, but to feel that we left Egypt, we have to move from “hope so” to “pretty sure.”