Tomorrow night people around the world will sit down with their family and friends and partake in the Passover seder. The seder is perhaps the oldest continuously practiced ritual unbroken throughout the generations. Throughout time and place it has adopted various new customs and adapted old ones but the essential component remains the same: the retelling of the Exodus. The great formative narrative of the Children of Israel, in which God with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand redeemed the Jewish people from their bondage in Egypt, is a story that continues to inspire humanity today. From the open expanse of the Sinai wilderness some 3000 years ago to the early formation of the era of European Enlightenment to Independence Hall in Philadelphia this is a story that has inspired people the world over to yearn for a better tomorrow and to not accept the world that is but rather struggle for the world that ought to be.
In the center of the narrative rests the notion of a miracle. Indeed, the Exodus story is replete with mention of miracles from frogs to the splitting of the sea. How do we interpret miracles from a Jewish philosophical perspective? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik z”l in The Emergence of Ethical Man offers a construct for the understanding of the role of the miracle:
The supernatural miracle is not very welcome in the covenant society. We prefer the regular flow of life. The Halakhah is completely integrated with the natural process. It never takes cognizance of any causalistic anomalies. Yet the central theme of the exodus tale is the miracle. What is a miracle in Judaism? The word ‘miracle’ in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural. It has never been placed on transcendental level. ‘Miracle’ (pele,nes) describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement. A turning point in history is always a miracle, for it commands attention as an event which intervened fatefully in the formation of the group or that individual….Israel, however, who looked upon the universal occurrence as the continuous realization of a divine ethical will embedded into dead and living matter, could never classify the miracle as something unique and incomprehensible…Miracle is simply a natural event which causes historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle
Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that the miracle is not by necessity a supernatural act. It is not the defying of the natural order of the world that essentially defines a miracle. Rather a miracle is an “outstanding event which causes amazement.” A miracle is a “turning point in history.” The essential defining characteristic therefore of a miracle is that it makes one’s head turn. It causes a person to stop in their tracks and to reassess or, to state it simply, to be utterly amazed.
As we prepare ourselves to re-encounter the drama of the Exodus narrative with all of its mention of miracles, what will amaze us? What will cause us to pause and turn our heads? The retelling of the story is not a passive act. We utilize special foods, songs and rituals in order to enliven the experience and make it personal. We are meant to thrust ourselves into the story and see ourselves as an actor in the great epic of freedom and redemption. When we stand up from our seder and prepare to take leave of the experience, we ought to have been changed by the experience. The true test of our seder will be the wonder and amazement it evokes.
Some three thousand years ago a small group of slaves were liberated from their oppression and entered the desert expanse. Their freedom story has forever changed human civilization. The question is: How will it change you?