|The Voice of Torah: Avot 5:5|
|Written by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger|
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt, and ten on the Sea. Ten plagues did God bring upon the Egyptians in Egypt, and ten on the Sea.
1) Pirkei Avos is a compendium of instructions for growth and self-improvement, not a compendium of history. Where in this Mishnah is there a message one can use for his own development?
2) According to the commentators, the ten miracles in Egypt were the fact that the ten plagues stopped short of affecting the Israelites. If so, that should have compelled the Mishnah to list them in reverse order. The miracles did not happen before the plagues did, so how can the Mishnah list them first?
3) Why do we need two illustrations of the series of tens, one in Egypt and one at the Sea. What so we learn from this repetition?
4) In the Haggadah, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva expand on the theme of miracles performed at the Sea, yielding up to 250 miracles. What is the significance of this expansion?
God sends us messages all the time. Are we required to recognize them all, interpret what they are trying to say, and act on them?
The Mishnah is answering that question.
Every plague that afflicted Egypt could have been explained away as a natural, random phenomenon – an anomaly, perhaps, but an occurrence unconnected to any punishment or other message coming from God. Even the Israelites could opt to view it that way.
When is it indicated that we are to acknowledge these occurrences as messages from God? When we see miracles connected to them. When ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt, only then were we expected to understand that the ten extreme occurrences in Egypt were, indeed, Plagues. Without the miracles, we remain free to see acts of nature or circumstance either as targeted messages or as benign occurrences.
In Jewish tradition, everything that happens to us in life is a message from God. We unnecessarily miss a plane, or spill a cup of milk. God is undoubtedly telling us something. Are we obligated to figure out what? God’s existence and His unity obligate us to acknowledge that He is the Source of every occurrence, yes. But in terms of our responsibility to figure out what He is saying, we are free to read any given message or to ignore it. If we choose to read it, it has specific meaning for us. If we choose to ignore it, our choice renders it benign.
The only exception, says our Mishnah, is if it comes accompanied by a miracle. If we experience a miracle, we lose our prerogative to ignore the message of an occurrence associated with that miracle. We are now required to acknowledge the message itself, not merely its source, and uncover its interpretation.
A young man I’ll call Jeff was once introduced to Rav Noach Weinberg, of Aish HaTorah. The rabbi offered to teach him about God. Jeff politely declined, indicating with two outstretched fingers that he and God were already close and tight. How did that come to be, the rabbi wanted to know? Jeff explained, “I’m a mountain biker. One day I was riding along a cliff with dangerous curves. Suddenly, my bike flew off the road. Certain death awaited me below, so I prayed to God and asked Him to save me. Miraculously, I landed in a bramble bush and walked away with nothing more than a few scratches! Rav Noach leaned across the table and looked Jeff straight in the eye. “Jeff, let me ask you something. Who do you think it was that pushed you off the cliff?”
Having experienced the miracle, Jeff had no choice but to recognize that the whole event, including the harsh blow, came from God and carried a message he had to read. Jeff got the message and decided to stay in Jerusalem and study Torah.
This is the Mishnah’s message to us. A relationship is not something that can be entered into involuntarily. It is for this reason that we can choose to accept or ignore messages we get from God all the time. We ignore them at our own cost, because the opportunity for relationship at that time is lost. But the choice must be ours. When we see a miracle, however, our opportunity becomes a mandate. We cannot hide behind a protestation of ignorance when our perception of God is that acute.
Now we can explain why the Mishnah uses two illustrations. Mitzrayim (Egypt) means constriction, or limitation. Yam (the Sea) is a device used to connote something wide, vast, and unrestricted (like the Sea of Talmud). These two opposites are juxtaposed so that they parallel This World (Olam Hazeh) and the World to Come (Olam Haba). As much as we can imbibe the message of the Mishnah in the straits of a world of constriction, to that extent we will merit to experience its results in an unlimited world of eternal expansion. And the particular Sea in question here is the Yam Suf, related to the word “Sof”. “Sof” in the Torah’s story of Yehuda and Tamar (Bereshit 38:26) has two possible meanings – “end” or “endless”. The point is clear. If we recognize and accept God’s messages to us in this world, the relationship we develop with Him here will become endless in the world to come. If we ignore all messages, even the compelling ones punctuated by miracles, we will find in the world to come that our already limited connection with Him will have come to an end.
We now appreciate Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. They are giving us vivid descriptions of how the expansive nature of the Yam – and its parallel, the World to Come – can work. With simple calculations, 10 miracles quickly become 250. And our simply saying so, makes it so – just as our decision to take God’s messages seriously, makes them serious messages.
Far from a mere history lesson, this Mishnah teaches us how to live.