With this week’s Torah portion comes the beginning of the Exodus story, including the first seven of the ten plagues. These are presented as an expression of God’s intervention in nature, through which the Egyptians were to learn that it is not right for one human being to enslave another. In our youth, many of us were taught that these plagues were really only natural events, albeit extreme, which were then exaggerated and embellished over the centuries in the collective memory of our people and finally recorded in the Torah as God’s supernatural handiwork.
Regardless of what happened, or didn’t happen, historically, the Torah is trying to tell us something else. In describing these plagues, as well as all of God’s miraculous deeds in the first part of the book of Exodus, the text uses the terms otot—“signs”—and moftim— “wonders”—neither of which means natural events.
And the Torah comes to teach us that human involvement (here by Moses and Aaron) is necessary to effect these signs and wonders. The plagues, the parting of the Reed Sea, the rock flowing with water—none of these things happen without human participation in bringing about the miracle. Moses and Aaron are not seen as possessing miraculous powers on their own; rather, they partner with God to bring about needed change in reality as they know it. Only after that reality—the laws of nature—has been altered can the Israelites raise up their heads and demand their freedom. Only after these changes to the world as they knew it did the Egyptians’ determination to dominate another nation begin to break down.
I’ve been thinking a lot over this last weekend of commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. About how he and all those who worked on behalf of civil and human rights in this country were working miracles. They risked (and sometimes lost) their lives to challenge the so-called “natural order” of race relations, and while many of them prayed for God’s intervention, they didn’t stand by and wait. They became God’s partners in seeking and achieving justice.
I’ve also been thinking about how much more there is to do rectify racial disparity in our country and how we, in the Or Hamidbar community, might best be involved in this work. How might we be those human beings who partner with God in creating miracles, the changes so necessary to our community, our nation, and the whole world?
I hope to have some concrete suggestions in the weeks to come, but in the meantime, I invite everyone to consider renewing our sense of wonder and our ability to perceive the positive events around us as signs for us to partner with God in working miracles.