Worlds Within Worlds
There are aspects of the Exodus story that are difficult to comprehend at first glance.
God, who is omnipotent by definition, wants to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. So why doesn't He simply just do it? Why does He instruct Moses to negotiate with Pharaoh, why does He bother with the ten plagues, why does He split the sea? Why doesn't He simply put it into Pharaoh's mind to let the Jews go? If He could harden Pharaoh's heart against letting them go, as He subsequently did, He could certainly soften his heart and obtain their voluntary release.
These questions indicate that the way to relate to the Exodus miracles is not to view them as mechanisms required to engineer the physical the release of the Jewish people - a simple matter for God to arrange without much fuss ? but to perceive them as acts of revelation that were sent to teach the world about God.
The following conversation is part of the initial meeting between God and Moses recorded in the Torah that culminated in Moses' appointment as the Redeemer:
Moses said to God, "Behold, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your forefathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name,' what shall I say to them?" God answered Moses, "I Shall Be As I Shall Be," and He said, "So shall you say to the Children of Israel, 'I Shall Be has sent me to you.'" God said further to Moses, "So shall you say to the Children of Israel, 'YHVH, the ELOHIM of your forefathers, the ELOHIM of Abraham, the ELOHIM of Isaac and the ELOHIM of Jacob has sent me to you. This is My name forever and this is my remembrance from generation to generation." (Exodus 3:13-15)
This is a rather bewildering passage: Moses asked an apparently simple question, "If the Jewish people ask me about God's name, how shall I respond? Why the reference to so many Divine Names in God's answer? Why would the Jewish people ask about God's name anyway? Didn't the Patriarchs hand down that information as part of their tradition?
Nachmanides explains the reason for our bewilderment; we are considering this entire discussion from the wrong perspective. Of course the Jewish people already knew God's names. But they also knew that each of His names stands for one of His character traits. According to the sophisticated tradition concerning prophecy that had been handed down to them by the Patriarchs, the holy name that God selects to appoint a prophet reveals a considerable amount concerning that prophet's mission. Moses knew that when he came to the Jewish people with his message of Divine redemption, the first thing they would wish to know would be the name God selected to identify Himself when He sent Moses on his mission.
The only way to unravel the passage is to understand it in this perspective; Moses was asking God, "Under which of Your Divine Names are You sending me on my mission to redeem the Jewish people?"
But this explanation requires an explanation of its own. What does the name that God chooses to identify Himself signify? After all God is God by whichever name He is identified, and if He has finally decided to redeem the Jewish people, why should they concern themselves about the way He referred to Himself when He reached this decision?
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DIVINE NAMES
The following is a précis of R' Chaim of Volozhin's explanation of the significance of the Divine Names. The famous student of The Gaon of Vilna presents this thesis in the second gate of his work Nefesh Hachaim. According to Jewish thought, what we know about God is entirely tied up with what we understand about His names. Judaism is not a philosophical religion.
We Jews don't believe that you can figure out who God is through reasoning from first principles. God is infinite and we human beings are not, and this dichotomy places God beyond our comprehension by definition. All we can figure out through applying our reason to the Universe is the fact that He exists. This tells us nothing about His nature or His motives. The fact that we still know so much about God, is only thanks to the fact that He revealed Himself to us through the Torah; He identified Himself to us by various names, each one representing a different manifestation of His Divinity. The Talmud explains:
Moses asked to be taught the Great Name. God said to him, "You want to know my name? I am called after my actions. When I judge my creatures I am called ELOHIM. When I make war against evildoers I am called ZEVOAS. When I suspend judgment on a person's sins I am called SHADDAI. When I sit on the throne of mercy I am called YHVH." (Shmos Rabba 6:3)
NAMES AS CHARACTER TRAITS
God created the world with the name ELOHIM. This is the Divine name used throughout the story of creation. The natural world and all its phenomena come under the rule of the personality of God represented by it. In Hebrew this name has the same numerical value as the word hateva, 86, which is the name of the natural world. How is this related to 'the judging of His creatures' referred to by the Midrash?
Remember that we are dealing with aspects of the Divine character and not directly with actions. The creation of the natural world clearly requires the placing of all phenomena within the framework of inflexible rules and to ensure that everything remains fixed in its predetermined niche within the overall structure of natural reality. In terms of the character trait displayed by the creator of such a rigid system this conforms precisely to a personality with unbounded imagination but possessed of a total lack of mercy.
The name YHVH stands for a higher sort of Divine manifestation. This name describes God as a being who simultaneously exists both in the past, present and the future, and who is the source of all being. The past, present and future rolled into one gives God perfect control over purpose. God's ability to lay out reality so that it always conforms to the overall purpose of creation stems from the fact that He is not limited by time and as the source of all being, is always in a position to arrange 'being' on all levels so that it never glitches away from what it was intended to accomplish. Because God's overall purpose in everything He created was to allow Him to express His trait of benevolence, this aspect of God is referred to by the Midrash as sitting on the Throne of Mercy.
NOT A NATURAL EVENT
According to Nachmanides, by telling Moses that His name is "I shall Be As I Shall Be," God sent a message to the Jewish people that the Exodus will not occur on the level of ELOHIM; the Exodus does not belong to the natural world. It would be directed by the manifestation of God known as YHVH, and its events would unfold on a plane of existence that is normally concealed by the surface workings of the natural world. We need a little more background to fully appreciate the reasons for this.
A Jewish nation does not fit into the reality under which the natural world is organized, the system that is the manifestation of the Divine character traits referred to by the Name ELOHIM. In this natural system there are seventy nations, and Israel is not one of them. Jews had no homeland assigned to them at the time of the great dispersal of humanity described in the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11) when the world was split into seventy parts corresponding to the seventy nations. Angels administer the affairs of these nations of the natural world, but no angel was appointed to watch over the affairs of the Jewish people. God Himself accepted responsibility over the direction of their affairs personally.
It would have been quite pointless to induce Pharaoh to emancipate the Jewish people without exposing an entirely novel aspect of reality, because the Jewish people had no place as a separate entity in the reality of the natural world, the only prevailing reality at the time. Before they could be emancipated, God had to establish a new sort of connection with the world, and it is within the new world order established under this new connection that Israel would find its place under the sun.
This new connection is called YHVH, and an entirely novel sort of miracle would serve as the means of its inauguration.
There are two types of miracles, nisim nistorim, "hidden miracles," and nisim gluim, "open miracles."
Nisim nistorim, or "hidden miracles," are statistically unlikely natural events. Suppose we discover that a particular family or nation is always prosperous, no matter what sort of economic conditions prevail in the world, or always victorious, no matter how strong an enemy it faces, a nation whose women never miscarry, and none of its members or citizens ever dies prematurely. There is nothing miraculous per se about such a nation. But while the existence of such a nation may be allowed by the rules of natural law, its existence would be so statistically unlikely, that it would provide clear and convincing evidence that the Guiding Hand of Providence is manipulating matters behind the scenes.
Such Providence precisely was at work in the lives of the Patriarchs, who were all wealthy and successful in very unusual ways, and such Providence is promised by the Torah in Leviticus 26 and in many other passages in the Torah.
The acceptance of such Providence as the guiding spirit of the Jewish people is the main point of the Shema prayer recited by Jews twice daily:
"And it will come to pass that if you continually hearken to my commandments ... then I will provide the rain for your land at the proper time ... and you will eat and be satisfied."
PROVIDENCE DOES NOT THREATEN PHARAOH
This type of miracle does not upset the existent world order and Pharaoh had no problem dealing with the God who made Himself manifest in nature by the performance of this type of miracle. This sort of Divine power did not threaten his rule - he realized that if the Jews left Egypt under this sort of system it would leave them with no place to go.
It was possible for a family or a small tribe to exist under such a system of Providence as a unique entity, because the existence of a small group of people leading a statistically unlikely sort of existence does not displace the existent world order. But an entire nation of millions must have its own place; it cannot exist independently on another nation's soil, and there was just no place set aside to accommodate the nation of Israel in the natural order of things.
Pharaoh himself said as much in his first meeting with Moses, when he demanded:
Who is YHVH that I should heed his voice to send out Israel? I do not know YHVH, nor will I send out Israel!"
The Sages in Midrash Tanchuma, (Va'eira 5) interpret this passage:
Pharaoh had a book, which described the gods of all the seventy nations, and the name YHVH did not appear in his book. He told Moses that no one had ever heard of this Divine manifestation and he did not believe that it existed. Therefore he dismissed Moses and his mission on the grounds of irrelevance.
The familiar reality in place at the time of Moses' initial meeting with Pharaoh could not accommodate the emancipation of the Jewish people. God could no doubt free them, but then what? They weren't talking about taking over Egypt but about leaving. Where was there for them to go? In order to establish the reality that was needed to support the Jewish people in a state of emancipation God had to demonstrate the existence of the Divine manifestation of YHVH and its characteristics through nisim gluim, "open miracles."
Nisim gluim, "open miracles," are events that are not merely statistically unlikely, but totally impossible under the laws of nature. The Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Red Sea fall into this category.
Historically, even theologians who surely accept the existence and the Omnipotence of God have had trouble accepting the existence of this type of miracle. For example, David Hume, the 18th century British philosopher, argued forcefully that such miracles are impossible by definition - no person who testifies to their occurrence has sufficient credibility to establish their existence as a matter of fact. Reason compels us to assume that he is either lying or misled by the evidence of his senses.
The argument against the possibility of nisim gluim is that such miracles constitute the destruction of the world order. God created the world and He can therefore destroy it. But even God cannot simultaneously destroy the world and still have it. The universe, created or not, is a closed physical system and all its parts are interdependent. If a single atom is removed, the entire structure collapses. The rules that the Creator Himself designed into the structure of the universe preclude the possibility of such miracles.
OVERCOMING THE OBJECTIONS
The way to meet these sorts of objections is by explaining the implications of the revelation of the manifestation of God under His name YHVH.
This name signifies that God is the source of all being in the past, present and future simultaneously. If we stripped away all the surface layers of what we see as reality we would find that all being is merely the pure expression of God's will. At the level of YHVH there are no laws of nature. Existence is stripped of all duality and the Unity of God stands fully revealed. There is nothing else besides God. There is nothing in existence that can prevent Him from expressing being the way He wills. All being is a manifestation of His will by definition.
But making Himself manifest to mankind under this name of YHVH requires the establishment of a novel spiritual connection to the universe. The miracles of the Exodus embody the formation of this novel bond. Never before or since the Exodus has God performed miracles to provide proof of His existence; never before or since has He used miracles as teaching aids that help to explain novel aspects of revelation.
But novel 'spiritual connections with the universe' really translates into novel connections with human beings, the only creatures in the universe capable of establishing spiritual connections. The particular connection under discussion, connecting with God in His aspect of YHVH, was forged with the Jewish people in particular and served as the means of their emancipation.
THE CHOSEN PEOPLE
One of the great mysteries of world history is the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. No one really understands how it manages to survive and persist through every attempt at assimilation or to rear its ugly head in countries with no appreciable Jewish presence.
The phenomenon of anti-Semitism first made its appearance in Egypt. Pharaoh looked at the Jewish people, who were model citizens, who had done his country much good and zero harm and decided that Jews could not be trusted and must therefore be enslaved as a legitimate protective measure. The story of the Egyptian exile also presents the Jews as the "chosen people" for the first time. The culmination of the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the simultaneous drowning of the Egyptians and rescue of the Jews is the embodiment of God's act of choice. We can now appreciate that the ideas of chosen-ness and the phenomenon of anti-Semitism are really opposite sides of the same coin.
The Jewish people can only exist in the natural world in the same fashion as open miracles. Their existence is contrary to natural law and represents the destruction of the natural order of things. Their existence is made possible only through the Divine manifestation YHVH, where God simultaneously creates and destroys.
In other words, the very existence of the Jews represents a destruction of the natural order on which all other nations are dependent for their existence. As all human beings are spiritual, on a subconscious level they are all plugged in to the spiritual reality that underlies the physical universe. Thus all the nations perceive their destruction in the existence of Israel.
States the Talmud:
Why was Sinai the name of the mountain on which the Torah was given? Because the sinah, or "hatred," of the nations descended from it. (Shmos Rabba 2:4)
The giving of the Torah at Sinai, which formalized the structure of the Jewish people, also cemented the hatred of the nations toward them.
THE WORLD OF YHVH
Their relationship to the Torah is the best way to comprehend the fact that the Jews are not a part of the natural world.
In the world of nature survival requires adaptation. The world changes and whoever doesn't learn to change with it is doomed to end up on the dustbin of history. Yet the acceptance of the Torah makes it virtually impossible for the Jewish people to adapt to a changing world. The laws of the Torah, that control so many aspects of a Jew's behavior, cannot be amended by human beings. Even God is committed to keeping these laws in their present form for all eternity. If the Jewish people were subject to the laws that prevail in the natural world they would have disappeared from the face of the planet long ago.
Of course many Jews have faded into the nations over the ages; but these were the very Jews who abandoned the observance of the commandments on the grounds that such observance was unsuitable to the progressive changing world in which they were living. Jews as a people have survived intact only because a large portion of the Jewish people has always stubbornly clung to all its traditions for dear life and refused to change and adapt.
THE WORLD OF JEWISH SURVIVAL
Jewish survival is not merely statistically unlikely; it is downright unnatural. Unnatural phenomena are not part of the natural world. Jewish survival takes place in the world of YHVH, not in the world of ELOHIM.
Jews who study other nations and apply their values back to Judaism in an attempt to bring the religion 'up to date' are focused in the wrong direction. The Jewish people may inhabit the same planet as the other nations but they live in a different world.
The tragedies of Jewish history always grow out of the fact that too many members of the Jewish people consider living in the world of YHVH rather than in the natural world of ELOHIM as an option rather than a necessity. They reason that Jews must also be able to survive as inhabitants of the natural world of ELOHIM. After all, this is the reality that accommodates human beings, and isn't a person a human being even before he is a Jew? The tragedies of Jewish history have demonstrated otherwise. The Chosen people can only survive in the heady atmosphere of the world of YHVH.
The world of YHVH is not only necessary for the emancipation of the Jewish people, it is also their only home.