Recently, I had occasion to quote the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Boxer,” which tells us that “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” The context was Israel’s antagonists, who justify lobbing missiles into Israel as the desperate act of an oppressed people but who criticize Israel’s self-defense efforts despite Israel dropping leaflets and sending texts warning residents to evacuate. The kind of people who deny there was ever a Jewish presence in Jerusalem despite archaeological evidence, literally hundreds of references in the Jewish Bible, and also serving as the setting for much of the Christian Bible.
Clearly, our enemies are wicked, wicked people who deny the evidence of their own senses in favor of their own vested interests. But are we any better?
I get this feeling throughout Chumash, in response to a certain unstated smugness that many of us share. For example, when Adam and Chava eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we’re confident that we would never have done that after God said not to. But the bulk of our self-satisfaction is reserved for the generation of the Exodus. Examples include:
- When the Jews in the wilderness complain about the manna, we’re sure we wouldn’t have been among them;
- When the Midianites lured the Jews with lascivious behavior and idolatry, we wouldn’t have been tempted;
- For sure, we wouldn’t have listened to the negative report of the ten spies;
- There’s absolutely no way we would have danced around a gold statue of a cow!
It’s simply incomprehensible to us that our forebears could have done these things. We certainly wouldn’t have done so after witnessing so many miracles! The plague of darkness alone would have done the trick, let alone the parting of the sea, the daily manna, the clouds of glory and the revelation at Sinai! After all that, there’s no chance we could have been misled or ungrateful!
But is that really so? We live in an age of miracles and we take so much for granted.
“What miracles?” I hear you ask. Well, just look around you! You can be anywhere in the world in under a day! Pictures are regularly sent back from the other end of the solar system! You carry a device in your pocket that grants you access to all the knowledge of mankind, enables you to speak instantly with people around the globe, captures moments of time for posterity, entertains you with music and motion pictures, and gives you directions! Can you imagine what our grandparents would have made of such a device, let alone the generation of the exodus?
“Those aren’t miracles,” comes the retort, “it’s just science!” But isn’t that a miracle? Avraham derived the existence of God by observing the sun and other works of nature. Isn’t the way a seed grows into a tree more miraculous than a smart phone? Isn’t the way the human eye works more miraculous than a sea splitting? We’re capable of becoming desensitized to anything, no matter how wondrous. (Gosh-darn magnets! How do they work?)
Perhaps we would be more in tune with our abundant miracles if we lived in an age of prophets. But we do! True, we don’t have the actual prophets today but in the past two generations we have seen so many of their words come to pass. Just look at the tochacha (rebuke) in Leviticus 26:
“I will bring a sword upon you that will execute the vengeance of the covenant and you will be gathered together within your cities…and you will be delivered into the hand of the enemy (verse 25). … I will make your cities a waste and will bring your sanctuaries unto desolation (verse 31). … You will perish among the nations and the land of your enemies will devour you (verse 38). … And yet, despite all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I detest them to destroy them completely and to break My covenant with them… (verse 44).”
That’s a pretty remarkable thing to promise and yet we have seen it come to pass. Just a handful of other fulfilled Bible prophecies include:
- The Jews returned to Israel as foretold (Isaiah 43);
- The land of Israel, which was desolate in the Jews’ absence, has bloomed (Isaiah 41);
- Jerusalem has not only been rebuilt (Zechariah 12), it has expanded to many times its original size (ibid. 1-2);
- Nations like Amon, Moab and Edom are gone but Egypt remains, although no longer the world power it once was (Jeremiah 46).
And can’t we all fly to Israel whenever we want, “on eagles’ wings” (Isaiah 40:31)?
Every generation has its own unique challenges and its own unique opportunities but human nature stays the same. If we had lived in the time of the exodus, a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night and manna materializing every morning would be our status quo. We would be as capable of taking that for granted as we are our iPhones and air travel. That doesn’t mean that these things are worthy of being taken for granted. Avraham saw the clouds block the sun and the wind scatter the clouds – mundane things by any generation’s measure – but he used them to determine the Creator’s existence!
Every generation lives in an age of miracles. Every day is an age of miracles. The trick is in recognizing these wonders and then asking ourselves: Since I live in an age of so many obvious miracles, what am I going to do with this information? How am I going to live my life? Is this going to strengthen my service to God, or will I just hear what I want to hear and disregard the rest?
We criticize others, past and present, for ignoring the obvious when it has inconvenient ramifications vis-à-vis what they want to do. Once in a while we have to shine that light on ourselves, making sure that we’re seeing the signs, internalizing the messages, and living our lives accordingly. If we’re not – which may often be the case – then we know it’s time to adjust our outlooks.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.