Imagine. The Egyptians are chasing after you and the sea is in front of you. There is nowhere to run. At the moment when all seems lost, the sea suddenly splits before your eyes. What kind of reaction would you have?
Now imagine an alien coming down to earth, and he sees both the splitting of the sea and the birth of a baby. What would he (or she…or it…) think is a greater miracle?
The inexplicable development and birth of a new human being from another seems to be more impressive than water moving in opposite directions. But we are used to the concept of giving birth – no matter how ‘miraculous’ it may be. For us, what makes something incredible and miraculous is when nature does something very unusual – when physical nature doesn’t follow its nature. That is a miracle in our eyes.
Interestingly, when we sing about the splitting of the sea in the Hallel prayer, the Psalm says that the sea ‘fled’ – ‘vayanos’ in Hebrew. That’s a rather peculiar way of describing the event. And what makes it even stranger is that the exact same word is used in the Torah to describe Joseph. When Joseph was sent down to Egypt by his brothers, he became a slave for the aristocrat, Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. She would change clothing throughout the day, and even threatened to put hot metal spears in Joseph’s eyes unless he looked at her. One day the house was empty and Potiphar’s wife was putting immense pressure on Joseph. The temptation to give in was reaching a boiling point. And the verse says, “She caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ And he left his garment in her hand and fled (vayanos) and went outside” (Genesis, 39:12).
Why is the splitting sea described as ‘fleeing’ the same way Joseph is described as ‘fleeing’? There must be a connection.
We explained that in our eyes a miracle occurs when physical nature doesn’t follow its nature. But what makes something miraculous in God’s eyes? The manipulation of nature is not impressive for God; that’s easy business!
In the eyes of Heaven, a miracle is when human beings go against their nature. And that is exactly what Joseph did. Just as the sea ‘fled,’ going against its normative physical nature and creating a miracle, so too when Joseph ‘fled’ from Potiphar’s wife, he went against his nature and created a human miracle. When God sees a person overcoming a negative urge which is in his nature, now that’s impressive! Wow! Indeed, the Talmud says, “You should have seen the commotion in heaven when Joseph did what he did!”
When we choose to fight being lazy, getting angry, or succumbing to our desires and overcome these natural inclinations instead, we perform a real miracle. When we face the challenges in our lives, we have the ability to raise ourselves through our choices The challenge is pushing us to move one step above our nature, and when we do that we attain a spiritual accomplishment that is out of this world.
The Midrash says that when the sea saw the coffin of Joseph being held by the Jewish people as they were leaving Egypt, it remembered how Joseph fled from Potiphar’s wife. And in the merit of one of the greatest human miracles performed by Joseph, God responded by performing one of the most supernatural miracles ever and split the sea.
The extent we move beyond our natural state and consciously bring God into our lives determines the extent God will deal with us in an open and miraculous way. When we perform our own miracles for our relationship with God, God performs miracles for us.
The word for a miracle in Hebrew is a ‘nes’, and the Hebrew word for a challenge is ‘nisayon.’ It derives from the same root because the concept is the same. A miracle is about embracing a challenge and going against our nature. We may not be able to split the sea or perform physical miracles, but we can perform our own personal miracles by rising above our negative drives and doing what is right.
The Talmud asks, “Who is strong?” The answer is powerful: “One who overcomes his desires” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1). That is the real test of character. And that is the real test of life.