It was the winter of 1999 in Israel, and my sister had come to visit me while I lived there. We planned a trip to Masada and everyone told us that we should leave near sunrise in order to hike up at the coolest part of the day. Did we listen? No. Instead, we arrived there around noon, and we two Bellows sisters began our climb with the sun directly overhead. It was a particularly hot, humid day in the desert, and the heat only added to the time it took us to ascend.
It probably took us over two hours to make it to the top. We stopped often, and kept trying to stay hydrated. As we approached the top, we noticed there were storm clouds in the distance. We were afraid that it would begin to rain before we made it to the top, which would only make our hike increasingly uncomfortable.
We tried to hurry, but it was hard. Eventually, the dark cloud was right above us. Amazingly, it didn’t begin to rain until the exact second that we put our feet down on the top of Masada. We looked at each other at that moment and had the same thought, “Thanks, God, for waiting until we completed our journey!”
It was an incredibly holy moment, and it provided both of us with a renewed sense of clarity about the Presence of God in our lives, and about the possibility of miracles both large and small.
In Parashat Bo, we read about the final four plagues that occurred during our Egyptian enslavement. Our people had been slaves for so very long, and they were finally about to experience one of the greatest miracles of our tradition. As the midrash teaches us, “Thus it is said that the rescue from Egypt is equal to all the miracles and deeds that God performed for Israel” (M’chilta, Amalek 3).
As the Jewish people, we have always been compelled to tell and retell this story.
It captures the imaginations of authors, illustrators, filmmakers, and academics alike. Of course, our tradition dedicates an entire holiday to it. In fact, the Haggadah may be the Jewish text that has been illustrated most over time.
I believe that one of the reasons we continue to be so captivated by the story is because it teaches us about the possibility of the impossible. God does care about our suffering, God can help us, and miracles do happen.
We have many diverse and conflicting theologies in Jewish tradition. Though some of our greatest philosophers dismiss God’s active participation or interest in our lives, I have resonated most with those who believe that God does interact and partner with us. I connect most with thinkers like Martin Buber, who believed that God is the Eternal Thou that we could interact with as human beings, and who is present as a third partner any time we authentically encounter something else in our world (see I and Thou, Martin Buber [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970). And I resonate with the teachings of the kabbalists who believed that our actions here on earth have an impact on God, and that God is truly present and accessible.
Many of us do indeed experience the incredible, the miraculous, and the mysterious in our lives. And sometimes, despite efforts to explain these events away through scientific means, we still can’t explain why certain things happen.
We may have a dream that helps us, through imagery, metaphor, and emotion, with a decision we need to make. And this, I believe, comes from the divine soul within us that offers its wisdom and guidance.
We may have a relative who, according to the doctors, is terminally ill, but somehow he or she recovers and regains strength and health. This, I believe, is evidence of miracles in our lives.
We may experience something challenging, heartbreaking, or painful that we don’t understand at the time, but later we see that it set us on a new path that we never would have undertaken otherwise. This, I believe, shows us a divine hand in our life’s journey.
I have heard from many congregants throughout my rabbinate who experience these miraculous moments, and who enjoy sharing their sense of wonder, appreciation, and gratitude. I hear from them that they have looked for a place to talk about these events, to be validated, and to be able to enjoy the mystery of it all. Just as the Exodus from Egypt included various signs and portents from God, our lives can also contain these messages. Many of them can help us see the daily miracles that fill our individual life stories. We may not ever see something as grand as the Sea of Reeds parting before our eyes, but we can still experience God day by day.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the “Reform, Really” column, which is featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.
Our Torah portion, Parashat Bo, teaches an important lesson about the meaning of freedom. When Moses and Aaron speak for God and proclaim to Pharaoh, “Let my people go” (Exodus 10:3), we often forget to include the second half of this Hebrew sentence. For in fact, the whole phrase reads, Shalach ami v’ya-avduni, “Let my people go that they may worship me.” From this we are reminded that freedom is not without purpose. The Israelites were not redeemed from Egypt to serve only themselves and their own wants and needs. They were given a sacred responsibility. It is only when they are free that the Israelites are able to choose God, receive the Torah at Sinai, and create lives filled with meaning, service, and ultimately purpose.
This is yet another reason that the midrash Rabbi Bellows shares in her d’var Torah is so important: “It is said that the rescue from Egypt is equal to all the miracles and deeds that God performed for Israel” (M’chilta, Amalek 3). Thus the ultimate miracle that equals all others—the ultimate moment when God can play a role in our lives—is when we are given the freedom to make particular choices and we choose to remain in relationship with God.
We live in a world where bad things can and do happen. We might be faced with unemployment, the loss of someone we love, illness, and a multitude of other challenges. Often the more difficult choice is to not turn away from God. Parashat Bo reminds us of the mutuality of our relationship: we are given the great gift of freedom to deepen our relationship with all that is holy and, ultimately, to create a better world.
Rabbi Allison Berry is the assistant Rabbi at Temple Shalom of Newton, Massachusetts.
Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 448-471; Revised Edition, pp. 405–426;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 355–378