Jewish history consists of many epoch- making events. However, not all of these events have made an inroad into the consciousness of the Jewish people. For this to happen, the event must become, as the Jewish philosopher Emile Fackenheim calls it, a “root experience,” a moment in which the hand of God becomes most apparent through His active participation in Jewish history.
Still, this alone is not sufficient to transform an event into a root experience of enduring value. It is also necessary that the experience takes place in front of the multitude, as in the case of the splitting of the Red Sea, when “even the maidservants saw what the prophet Yehezkel ben Buzi could not see.” It is not the opening of the heavens, but rather the transformation on Earth that is decisive in affecting all future Jewish generations.
However, above and beyond all, a third element is necessary. It must be possible for later generations to have access to this vision. Only then can one speak of an actual root experience. If a vision cannot be shared with later generations, it will turn into a claim of the past and lose much of its religious value within Judaism.
IN THIS context it is most important to realize that it is not the conventional understanding of a miracle that is of importance here. While nobody will deny that the splitting of the Red Sea was a violation of the laws of nature, this is not the source of its religious power or message. The most important quality of a miracle is not that it is supernatural, or super-historical, but that it is a moment which, even when it can be argued away in terms of science and brought into the nexus of nature and normal history, remains miraculous in the eyes of the person to whom it occurred.
The real power of a miracle is that it is an astonishing experience of an event in which the current system of cause and effect becomes, as it were, transparent; permitting a glimpse of the sphere in which another unrestricted Power is at work. As such, it destroys the security of all knowledge and undoes the normalcy of all that is ordinary. It is the abiding astonishment which is crucial.
The religious person stands in wonder; no knowledge or cognition can weaken his astonishment. Any natural explanation will only deepen his wonder.
It is in this sense that a historical miracle becomes a root experience and allows later generations to have access to it through its own experience. It is possible for later generations to relive the experience, not because of what happened, but through the way it was perceived.
THE ESTABLISHMENT of the State of Israel was no doubt an epoch-making event. It is the completely astonishing nature of this event that stands out – the transformation of the earthliness of the Jewish people into a radically different situation. While miracles no doubt occurred to enable it to happen, the most important religious dimension is, again, the abiding astonishment at this event in terms that could be expected, especially after the events of the Holocaust.
Only when the establishment of the State of Israel is seen in the light of the miracle at the Red Sea will its fascination continue. And this is exactly where the greatest danger to Israel’s continued existence lies. Just as we are informed that the miracle at the Red Sea lost its religious impact on the Israelites and normalcy became the call of the day, whereby the Israelites complained that God had left them, so we see a similar component at work in today’s Israeli society and leadership.
Just as the complaints concerning food and water took on a new impetus after the great miracle at the sea, so we see a mentality of psychological denial and existential dullness in the State of Israel in which many people – but most of all its leaders – no longer understand the wonder of the State’s very existence.
Just as the Israelites in the desert paid a heavy price, so will Israeli society if it does not force itself once again to look through the clouds, see the miracle and rejuvenate itself through it.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post