28 Iyar 5774
Day 43 of the Omer
Yom Herut Yerushalayim: Paradigms of Miracles
by Daniel Pinner
Reading one chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbat for each of the six Shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot is a long-established tradition: almost 1,200 years ago, Rabbi Amram Gaon, Rosh Yeshivah in Sura, Babylon, mentioned that this was customary in the Babylonian Academies on Shabbat afternoons.
Last Shabbat we read the fifth and penultimate chapter of Pirkei Avot, and it is that chapter whose thoughts remain with us and inspire us for this week. And in this fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Sages of the Talmud give us an invaluable insight into the nature of miracles.
“Ten miracles were wrought for our forefathers in Egypt, and ten at the Red Sea” (Pirkei Avot 5:5). All of the major commentators (the Rambam, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, Tosfot Yomtov, Tiferet Yisrael) agree that the ten miracles in Egypt were, surprisingly, not the ten plagues in and of themselves, but rather that in each case we were saved from the plagues.
The entire purpose of the plagues was that “all the plagues came upon Egypt and not upon Israel” (Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura), and that “they were saved from the ten plagues even though they deserved to be punished just like the Egyptians, since they were just as bad and sinners like them, but were saved in the merits of their Fathers” (Yachin of Tiferet Yisrael). Only thus did God demonstrate not only that He controls nature, but that He controls nature for the sake of the Jewish People.
Though Pirkei Avot tells us that another ten miracles were wrought at the Red Sea, it does not tell us what those ten miracles were. The Midrash (Tanhuma, Beshallach 10 and Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach 5) enumerates them:
1) The Sea was split for them, and became a dome covering them;
2) It was divided into ten channels, as God said to Moshe, “Stretch forth your hand over the sea and divide it” (Exodus 14:16);
3) It became completely dry, so they would not even get their feet muddy, as it says, “…and the children of Israel walked on dry ground” (ibid 14:29);
4) It became like thick, muddy clay, miring the Egyptians, as it says, “You trampled them in the sea with Your horses, with clay of mighty waters” (Habakuk 3:15);
5) The waters crumbled as it says, “You crumbled the sea with Your might” (Psalms 74:13);
6) The waters became piles of rocks against which the Egyptians were smashed, as it says, “He smashed the sea-serpents’ heads against the water” (ibid);
7) The water was cut into pieces, as it says, “To He Who cut the sea into pieces” (ibid 136:13);
8) The water was heaped into piles, as it says, “At the wind of Your nostrils the waters were heaped up” (Exodus 15:8);
9) It became a solid wall, as it says, “The flowing waters stood erect like a solid wall” (ibid);
10) Sweet water flowed out from the midst of the salt water for them, and the water froze, becoming like a glass jug, as it says, “The deep waters froze” (ibid).
So far, so easy to understand. God wrought ten miracles for our ancestors while they were yet in Egypt, and another ten at the Red Sea, and all were open, clear miracles which no observer could deny.
But Pirkei Avot continues: “Ten miracles were wrought for our forefathers in the Holy Temple:
1) No woman ever miscarried due to the aroma of the meat of the sacrifices;
2) The meat of the sacrifices never rotted;
3) No fly was ever seen in the place where the sacrificial meat was butchered;
4) No nocturnal emission ever happened to the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) on Yom Kippur [which would have rendered him impure and unfit for Temple service];
5) The rains never extinguished the fire of the wood-pile on the Altar;
6) The wind never disturbed the vertical column of smoke [arising from the Altar];
7) No disqualifying defect was ever found in the Omer or in the two Loaves [for Shavuot] or in the Showbread;
8) Though the people were crowded together when they stood, they had sufficient space to prostrate themselves full-length on the ground;
9) No snake or scorpion ever injured anyone in Jerusalem;
10) And no one ever said to his fellow, The place is too small for me to overnight in Jerusalem” (Pirkei Avot 5:7).
And in this list there is no single event that is miraculous in and of itself. The Jew who made the tri-annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem would not have gazed in awe at a pregnant woman not miscarrying from the aroma of the roasting meat of the sacrifices. No Jew would have been awestruck at seeing meat which had not rotted, or been overwhelmed at not seeing a fly around the meat-hooks set in the sides of the cedar-wood blocks on the eight stone benches to the north of the Altar or on the adjacent marble tables where the carcasses were flayed.
Similarly, the fact that the Kohen Gadol did not suffer a nocturnal emission on a specific Yom Kippur, or that the rain on any given Festival did not extinguish the fire of the wood-pile on the Altar, or that no disqualifying defect was found in the Omer or in the two Loaves or in the Showbread in a given year was not an open miracle. After all, how likely was it for any of these events to occur?
But after a total of 830 years (410 for the first Holy Temple and 430 for the second), the pattern would have become undeniable. For sure, the individual pilgrim who spent a week or two in Jerusalem without being bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion would not have seen anything miraculous. But when no pilgrim – uncountable millions of Jews through those centuries – was ever harmed thus throughout 830 years of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, then the miracle becomes undeniable.
Just as the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Red Sea were physically impossible, so too the perfect functioning of all these systems of the Holy Temple without even a single mishap over 830 years was statistically impossible.
The fact that Pirkei Avot uses the identical phraseology – “ten miracles were wrought for our forefathers” – both for the open, revealed miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea and also for the hidden, “mundane” miracles in the Holy Temple, suggests that the Mishnah places them on the same level, regarding them as equally miraculous.
This week marks the 47th anniversary of the Six Day War, and Wednesday 28th Iyyar (28th May) is celebrated as Yom Herut Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Liberation Day), the day that the paratroops liberated Jerusalem and restored it to Jewish sovereignty for the first time since the Roman general Pompey invaded Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E. and installed Hyrcanus as High Priest and vassal king of Rome.
In many ways the Six Day War straddles the boundary between hidden miracles and revealed miracles. Most of the individual battles which Israel won can be explained rationally: even though the Arabs outnumbered and outgunned Israel on four borders, Israel enjoyed specific tactical advantages – shorter supply-lines, superior communications, a fortuitous wind in the Sinai Desert which raised a dust-storm at just the right moment, the rising sun dazzling the Egyptians in the morning of the first day of the war, the setting sun dazzling the Jordanians that evening, Egyptian soldiers who were unable to read the instructions for their missiles and were therefore unable to fire them…the list goes on.
Most of these battles can be explained rationally – but the statistical likelihood of all these events occurring by pure happenstance is vanishingly tiny. We must remember that in the Six Day War, Israel had zero margin for error. Israel was attacked by 13 Arab and Moslem states (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco,Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, and Pakistan).
At the beginning of the war, hostile forces surrounded Israel on three sides; the only neutral border was the sea, into which the Arabs had sworn to drive the Jews.
Hostile Jordanian forces, stationed in the centre of Jerusalem (half of which was under illegal Jordanian occupation), were poised to sweep across Israel from east to west, to link up with the Egyptian army preparing to invade from the south-west. Meanwhile the Syrian Army was preparing to attack from the north and then sweep through the country to link up with the other Arab forces in the Tel Aviv region.
Had any Arab army – any one at all, Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, all of which were reinforced with the armies of the other hostile states – won even one single land battle, then Israel would have been destroyed. Israel had no strategic depth, no opportunity to recover from a single lost battle.
Under those circumstances, Israel’s very survival was precarious, to say the least.
True, each individual battle can (sort of) be explained rationally. But the perfect functioning of all Israel’s military systems without even a single mishap over the course of the war was statistically impossible.
When future historians will come to write of our era, perhaps they will discover another hidden miracle. Ever since the Six Day War, every government of Israel has tried with all their might to get rid of those parts of Israel which the army liberated during that war. On the 11th of Sivan 5727 (19th June 1967), just nine days after the war finished, Israel declared that she was willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights, the Sinai Desert (including the Gaza Strip), and Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) in return for peace treaties, normalisation of relations with the Arab states, and guarantee of navigation through the Straits of Tiran.
The Arab response was expressed in the Khartoum Conference two months later: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it”.
Israeli governments ever since have pleaded, begged, cajoled Arab countries to take back the territories that they lost in the Six Day War. Successive Israeli governments (the present one no less than previous ones) have yearned to give away the Temple Mount – Judaism’s holiest site – to anyone who was willing to talk to them: the PLO, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UN, the European Union, Switzerland, the Vatican – anyone.
It is a miracle no less than the miracles which the Mishnah records were wrought for our forefathers in the Holy Temple that the Temple Mount is still (nominally) under Israeli control. True, it does not seem miraculous that any one of the Israeli government’s attempts to give away the Temple Mount failed: after all, international diplomacy is full of failures.
But the statistical likelihood that after 47 years of non-stop appeals by Israeli governments to give away the Temple Mount not one foreign power would ever accept is vanishingly tiny.
The Six Day War was indisputably a series of miracles. And the aftermath – by now close on half a century – has been a series of miracles no less.