Vayera: Can a miracle convince?

Vayera: Can a miracle convince?

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

“When Pharaoh shall speak to you saying, Perform for yourselves a wonder; Take thy staff and throw it down in front of Pharaoh And it will turn into a serpent” (Exodus 7:9)

This was the instruction given to Moses before entering Pharaoh’s presence on the second occasion. On the first, their audience with him was accompanied by no sign or wonder. They came to Pharaoh “in the name of the God of Israel”, and presented their demand: “Let my people go!” In the face of Pharaoh’s blasphemous reply, “I know not the Lord and moreover, I will not let Israel go” they had no answer. Pharaoh retaliated by intensifying the bondage. On this occasion, however, emissaries of the Lord appeared once again but this time accompanied by a sign and wonder.

But they were distinctly warned that they were not to make the power of God manifest nor to perform the wonders before Pharaoh called for such proofs. Alshikh emphasised that God had said:

Do not volunteer such a display lest it be thought that you had deliberately prepared a conjuring act, but wait till Pharaoh says: “Perform a wonder”. But Abarvanel asks: Why should Pharaoh ask them at all for this? Surely he had no desire either to hear their message or see their wonders, as he told them in the first audience (v. 4): “Go to your burdens”? How then came God to say that Pharaoh would ask them for a wonder, as if that was his desire?

There is an even more serious difficulty. Ahaz king of Judah spurned Isaiah the prophet’s offer of a sign to confirm the promise of God. Here is how the Midrash motivates his refusal:

Isaiah said to him: “Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God, ask it either in the depth”, that the dead should come to life, “or in the height above”, i.e. that Elijah should descend from heaven. He answered him: I know He has the power to do it but I do not want the name of Heaven to be hallowed through me, as it stated: “I will not ask, neither will I try to Lord.” (Isaiah 7:11-12)

If that was Ahaz king of Judah’s attitude, all the more so, Pharaoh’s! Would he wish the name of Heaven to be hallowed, His power demonstrated before all his wise men and magicians by signs and wonders?

It is most reasonable to accept the view of those who maintain that Pharaoh was sure that these two old men of foreign extraction would not be capable of producing a sign, and that precisely because of this he would demand one. For let us recall what happened between the first and second audience (v. 1-4): aggravation of the bondage which sent the officers of the children of Israel, who saw their brethren in their evil plight, running to Pharaoh to intercede both for themselves and their brethren. But when their supplications were of no avail, they turned to Moses and Aaron and regarded them – not Pharaoh – as the source of all their troubles. It was they who had annoyed Pharaoh, lowered the prestige of the people and caused the aggravation of their sufferings. Pharaoh had achieved his goal. The increased severity of the persecutions did not intensify the hatred of him but kindled in the masses distrust of their leaders and even animosity against them. All that remained was to disgrace these two in public, show their impotence and they would be isolated, pilloried not only by the magicians and wise men but even by their own people. Consequently Pharaoh would say: “Perform a wonder for you” (not as he was used to saying: “Perform me a wonder”), since he required no wonder. He had known from the beginning that these emissaries were powerless. But he said: If you wish to show your power, on the contrary, perform a wonder for yourselves and we shall see!

Alshikh who usually interprets the word le’mor – “saying” in the sense of saying to others (“And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying” implying he said it to Israel), is forced to make an exception here in the passage: “when Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying , Perform a wonder for you”. He explains its force in the sense that Pharaoh would ask for a wonder only in order to have his say against Moses, to have a chance of showing up Moses’ impotence, and not in order to seek proof of the authenticity of Moses’ mission.

Since this sign and wonder was calculated to unnerve Pharaoh, as well as authenticate the mission of the emissary, Pharaoh was not vouchsafed the same sign that was given Israel. Moses was given a special sign for the Israelites:

Cast it to the ground and he cast it to the ground and it became a serpent.

To Pharaoh it was:

And cast it before Pharaoh that it became a dragon.

This difference is rather vaguely interpreted in Cassuto’s commentary to Exodus:

Instead of the serpent most appropriate to the desert, in which form the sign was transmitted to Moses, comes here the dragon or crocodile most appropriate to the Egyptian milieu.

But Cassuto did not observe the sting in this shift from a serpent to a crocodile, as the Midrash pictured it:

The Holy One Blessed be he said: This villain boasts and calls himself a dragon, as it is written (Ezekiel 29:3): “The great dragon (referring to Pharaoh) that lieth in the midst of his rivers” (i.e. the Nile and its canals). Go tell him: See this staff, it is a piece of dry wood; it shall become a dragon with life and soul and swallow up all the other staffs, and it is destined to revert to a dry piece of wood.

You likewise, I created you from a putrid drop and gave you empire and you boasted and said (ibid.): “My river is mine own and I have made it for myself.” Behold I shall turn you back to nothingness and chaos. You swallowed up all the staffs of the tribes of the children of Israel, behold I shall cause you to disgorge all you have swallowed.

What God had commanded was performed:

The Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and did so as the Lord had commanded,

Aaron threw the staff down in front of Pharaoh and his courtiers and it turned into a dragon.

As I frequently the case, the Torah refrains from unnecessary and laborious recapitulation. Pharaoh’s response “Perform for yourselves a wonder” is omitted and the whole action compressed into one verse. Our sages commented:

“They did so as the Lord commanded” – they did nothing till Pharaoh demanded a portent from them just as the Holy One Blessed be he had briefed them. Hence when that happened and only then: “Aaron threw down his staff”.

In Or Ha-hayyim the same point is elicited from an unnecessary duplication:

The duplication (1) “;so” – (2) “as the Lord commanded” (either would have sufficed) bears a twofold implication: (1) they did exactly what was required (2) they did not do it till Pharaoh demanded the sign – as God had commanded.

With all this, we observe that the performance of the wonder, even its symbolism of the overthrow of Egypt made no impression upon Pharaoh. Why? The Midrash gives us an answer and explains how Pharaoh avoided the logic of the wonder and invented a convenient rationalisation that dispelled the terror and indeed any impact of the sign.

And Pharaoh called to the wise men and magicians”. At that moment Pharaoh began to mock them and cluck after them like a hen, saying to them: Such are the wonders of your God! In the usual way, people bring merchandise to a place where it is needed. Do they bring fish to Acre? [i.e. coals to Newcastle]. Don’t you know that I am the master of all magic arts? He immediately sent for and brought the children from their schools for them to do likewise … Jahanai and Mammre (two magicians) said to Moses: You are bringing straw to Afaraim (city famous for its flour and straw). (Shemot Rabbah 9:4)

We see from here that the sign or wonder can only impress the one who is psychologically prepared to be convinced. Even Elijah who in his zeal for the Lord, resorted to this method of persuasion by miracle realized how momentary was its impact. Was not pharaoh aware of the worthlessness of all the magic of Egypt? It was not this that shook Pharaoh when he said: “I know not the Lord”. When was his obstinacy shaken? This we shall see in the next chapter.

For Further Study:
On the subject of the sign and wonder authenticating a prophet’s mission, read Deut. 13, 2-6. Cf. Also Rambam in his code, Yesodei Hatorah 8:2-3:

…Every prophet who will arise after Moses our teacher we may not believe in him on the strength of the sign alone that we should say: If the sign comes to pass we shall hearken to all that he says. On the contrary, it is on the strength of the commandment that Moses commanded in the Torah and said “a prophet will the Lord thy God raise up unto thee, from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him you shall hearken” (Deuteronomy, 18:15). Just as he commanded us to reach a verdict on the strength of witnesses even though we do not know whether they have testified the truth or not, so he commanded us to hearken to this prophet even though we do not know whether the sign he gave is a true one or mere trickery and sorcery.

Therefore, if a prophet should arise and perform signs and great miracles and endeavor to controvert the prophecy of Moses our teacher, we may not hearken to him, and we may be sure that those signs were performed through trickery and sorcery. For the prophecy of Moses our teacher is not authenticated by signs that we may array one sign against another, but we beheld it with our eyes and heard it with our ears just as he heard it.

Here we cite Moses Mendelssohn’s reply to the arguments of the Swiss priest Lavater who chose to adduce supernatural signs and wonders as an argument in favour of the truth of his faith:

According to the laws of my faith miraculous acts are no touchstone of truth, and a miracle cannot be accepted with moral certainty as evidence that a prophet has been sent by God. Only the giving of the Torah on the day of the full assembly of the people face to face constitutes the authentic testimony. For then the emissary required no evidence of his mission, since all the people heard with their ears the divine command. I find positive proofs in the Bible of the power of false prophets to perform wonders (for example, what can we say of the Egyptian magicians? And in Deuteronomy 13, 2 mention is made of a prophet or dreamer to whom we must not hearken even if signs come to pass and that we must put him to death). I am not able to decide whether these miracles were performed by magical means or an abuse of power given to them for a good purpose. At any rate I think that it cannot be denied that the Torah clearly does not accept miracles as positive evidence of a divine mission.

Cf. Also the Biur:

It is stated “And giveth thee a sign or wonder”. In other words, there appears on the scene a person who declares himself to have been sent by God to call upon the people to serve other gods. In confirmation of his mission he prophesies that a certain thing will come to pass. To such a prophet we are bidden not to hearken. It is axiomatic that a person who bolsters up his rejection of the existence of God or denial of His wisdom, kindness and goodness by recourse to signs and wonders, is contradicting the very thing he has set out to prove. One who denies one of the creator’s attributes, denies all of them. For instance a denial of God’s infinite justice and uprightness denies also His omnipotence and omniscience. One cannot acknowledge one of the attributes and repudiate the rest, since it is denying the unity of His name which is indivisible. How can such a man maintain that he is sent by God to deny one of his essential attributes! What difference does it make after such a self-contradictory declaration whether it is accompanied by sign or wonders?

It would seem that what is related in Exodus 4:1-8 and in our chapter (7:9) contradicts what is stated in Deut. 13:2-6. Explain the contradiction and how it can be harmonized with the help of Rambam and Mendelssohn.