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Va'era

“Then Pharaoh, for his part, summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells” Exodus 7:11

    Parashat Va’era, with its description of the first seven of the ten plagues, is packed with descriptions of miracles: from Aaron’s rod being turned into a snake to the unusually heavy hail, accompanied by flashing fire.~

    As a former research chemist, I am particularly intrigued about the nature of miracles. Unlike David Hulme’s 18th-century definition of a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature”, the Torah seems to imply that an event does not have to be supernatural in order to be seen as a sign of God. 

    The fact that, much like Pharaoh’s sorcerers, we can come up with scientific explanations for the Nile seemingly turning into blood should therefore not diminish the message of the miracle.

    The Hebrew word for miracle, nes, actually points to this, literally meaning a “sign”. The word is known to most from the Chanukah story (and the dreidel) but its most common usage is probably in the prayerbook, where it is used in the name of a section of the morning liturgy called the nissim b’chol yom, “the daily miracles”. 

    Rather than blessing supernatural phenomena, our liturgy invites us each morning to offer thanks to God for the most mundane realities, including having clothes to wear and waking from sleep. Our liturgy reminds us to open our eyes to the miracles around us, for the essence of the miracle is to instil in us an appreciation of the Divine in our lives. 

    This is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes as a goal of religious living: “to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom of all things”.
     

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