Friday, October 09, 2009

simchas torah and what made Moshe unique

The Torah ends by referring to Moshe’s greatness in performing “signs and wonders”. Ramban asks what was unique about Moshe in this regard that deserves to be singled out for praise – many other prophets also performed miracles and wonders for the Jewish people?

It is the Tiferes Shlomo (Radomsker) that clued me in to look at the end of the last pasuk in the Torah for an answer, but I am going to take a slightly different approach than he does. A thought experiment: Imagine if you could transport a nuclear reactor back in time to the Middle Ages and teach people how to harness its power and maintain it. Even with the mechanical knowledge of how to keep the reactor working, the people would undoubtedly view the whole production of energy as a miracle. Fast forward to 2009 and the perception of the reactor being a miracle vanishes. What’s the difference? The answer is that we not only know how to keep a reactor running, but also understand the theory behind how it works. Atomic reactions obey certain laws that have been discovered and explained. It’s not a miracle – that’s how the universe works.

To go a step beyond the Ramban, the magicians of Egypt could also perform “miracles” and suspected Moshe of being no different in ability than them. Why indeed was Moshe different? I think the answer goes beyond distinctions about the scale of the miracles or the size of the audience who witnessed them and relates to our example of the reactor. Other prophets, magicians, and the like performed miracles by becoming the channel for or channeling forces they could not understand and could not control into this world. They were “mechanics” or instruments in the hands of G-d. What made Moshe different was that he performed miracles “l’einei Bnei Yisrael,” as the last pasuk in the Torah tells us. It is the sages and scholars who are usually referred to as the “eini ha’eidah” because wisdom gives one the ability to discern what others miss. Moshe gave us not only miracles, but he gave us the context of a blueprint to the spiritual "laws" and theory that explained those miracles and made them possible.

R’ Chanina ben Dosa did not consider lighting a lamp filled with vinegar to be miraculous – “He who said oil should burn can also say vinegar should burn.” It’s only magical and miraculous if you don’t understand that there are spiritual laws just as there are physical laws and those laws can produce wonderful results.

The Minchas Chinuch famously asks why a person who violates a Torah law is not also inherently in violation of the prohibition against disobeying a prophet. This gets to the heart of why Moshe was unique. A prophet or miracle worker can describe the “what” of their experience and record it in a book of nevuah. The book of Moshe's deeds and prophecy is called Torah, not nevuah, because only Moshe explained the “why” and “how” and left a system that can be studied and used by all future generations.

Unlike other religious groups which change or collapse with the death of their central charismatic leader, the Jewish people were able to smoothly transition from Moshe to Yehoshua. Everything Moshe did was “l’einei Bnei Yisrael,” it fit into a system of thought and ideas that could live on beyond his personality and deeds.

The obsession with magical remedies and cults of personality in our times needs no elaboration. Simchas Torah reminds us that miracles and great leaders are valuable only to the degree that they help illuminate “einei Bnei Yisrael”, expanding our minds with a greater appreciation for Torah as a system of laws and values that we can study and live by. It is those laws and values that should capture our attention.

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