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A COURSE IN NATURE

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Mrs. Goldberg was a poor, old woman, her only livelihood derived from the daily sales of her home-baked bagels. Every morning, she would go to the market with a basket full of the round breads, and by nightfall she would have sold enough to afford the basic necessities for herself and her family.

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Mrs. Goldberg was a poor, old woman, her only livelihood derived from the daily sales of her home-baked bagels. Every morning, she would go to the market with a basket full of the round breads, and by nightfall she would have sold enough to afford the basic necessities for herself and her family. One day, Mrs. Goldberg went through her usual routine, arriving early at the marketplace with her steaming bagels. But sadly, as the day passed not a single person came to buy from her. She stayed in the market until late that night, but to her great disappointment she could not register even one sale. Giving up, she closed her stand, took her full basket, and began walking home. But before she had left the marketplace, a man ran up to her, inquiring how many bagels she had left. "Three dozen," she answered.

"Perfect!" exclaimed the man. "I will be celebrating my son's brit milah tomorrow and I haven't yet bought bread for the guests. I'll take all of them." He bought all of the bagels and happily ran off to complete his other preparations. In utter disbelief, Mrs. Goldberg gazed at her now-empty basket, then up at the sky, and said, "Master of the World, with all the other things that You must take care of, You took the time to look into my basket and ensure that I sold my bagels today?"

Seven days after their departure from Egypt, the Jewish people found themselves in a very difficult position. Before them lay the vast expanse of the Red Sea; behind them charged 600 hostile Egyptian chariots. Some prayed for Hashem to save them, others voiced their fears to Moses, who encouraged them not to be afraid. Hashem would soon demonstrate His power of salvation. Later that night, Hashem miraculously split the sea, creating a viable escape for the Jews, while drowning their pursuers. Upon witnessing the saving hand of Hashem, the Jewish people came to a deeper recognition of His Divine aid and achieved a stronger belief in Him.

This pattern of events is repeated throughout this week's Torah portion. The Jewish people find themselves in a physically jeopardizing situation, cry out for help, and Hashem saves them by blatantly breaching the laws of nature. We see this pattern at the Red Sea, later when the Jews find themselves without food, and still later when they are without water. Each time Hashem performs an obvious miracle - splitting the sea, providing manna to eat, and producing a flow of water from an ordinary rock - to release them from their predicament.

Hashem usually runs the world in a systematic, scientific, and ordinary fashion. If so, inquires Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, a great Torah scholar of the past generation, why did He change that natural order for the Jews in the desert? What was G-d's purpose in demonstrating blatant miracles for an entire generation? Couldn't He have saved them in a more natural way?

Rabbi Kanievsky explains that Hashem generally maintains a natural law to allow people an equal choice between doing good and bad. If we were always experiencing open miracles, we would be constantly reminded of Hashem and our obligation to Him, making it virtually impossible to sin and impeding our precious freedom of choice. Hashem therefore created a natural order, so that the miracles He performs can be taken as ordinary occurrences, clouding our realization of His constant intervention and enabling us to make an unbiased decision to do either right or wrong.

However, while Hashem wants this natural law to stay on course, it was necessary to change it for a single generation in order to teach the developing Jewish nation a fundamental ideology. Hashem changed nature in order to ingrain within us a recognition of His daily intervention in our personal lives. This could not be accomplished subtly. Only through a constant, blatant display of Hashem's Divine assistance would this lesson take root. For this reason, Hashem reworked nature for an entire generation, until this message became clear. Then, He reverted back to the usual, preferable, course of nature.

At the end of this week's Torah portion, the weary, traveling Jewish nation is attacked by the nation of Amalek. Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, gives us an insight as to why this confrontation took place: Just before the attack, the Jews had found themselves without water. Although they were clearly living by miraculous occurrences on a daily basis, when complaining about their lack of water they questioned, "Is Hashem among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7)

Rashi compares this remark to a child riding on his father's shoulders. Upon request from his son, the father picks up numerous items from the ground and hands them to the boy. Then, the boy looks around and asks, "Has anyone seen my father?" The father, having carried the child and handed him whatever he wanted, was agitated by his son's complete ignorance of him, so he put the boy on the ground to fend for himself. Immediately, a dog came and bit the child. Similarly, the Jewish people had asked if Hashem was among them, even though they were experiencing His open miracles on a constant basis. Hashem put them down for a moment and they were immediately bitten by Amalek.

However, says the Ralbag, a classic 14th century commentator, while the Jews were being attacked because they had not recognized Hashem's intervention, Hashem was working to teach them. The Jews in battle saw Moses standing on the mountain. When his hands were raised they were victorious, but when Moses let his hands down, they would lose. This acted to teach the nation that their victory was only achieved through Divine intervention. Once again, the Jews would understand the importance of recognizing Hashem's aid.

Recognizing and appreciating Hashem's active assistance in our daily lives is such an important and fundamental belief that Hashem used every opportunity - even changing the course of nature - to ingrain it deeply within us. While the Jews in the wilderness witnessed very visible intervention through daily miracles, we today experience the same assistance, just on a more subtle level. If we tune in to the miraculous events that occur in our own lives, but have lost their splendor due to their common practice, we will clearly see the same assisting hand at work.

If we contemplate the applications of this idea, we will soon discover that the answer to Mrs. Goldberg's question is a resounding yes. Hashem does take the time to look into her basket, making sure she has sold enough bagels to meet her financial needs. But His supervision is not limited to the bagel basket, nor even to Mrs. Goldberg. The lesson with which the Jewish people were inundated in the desert teaches that Hashem is constantly watching over every aspect of every person's life. This remains true whether it is displayed through something as dramatic as splitting the Red Sea, or through an event more mundane - but equally as miraculous - as waking up each morning or commuting safely to work. In every step we take and in every endeavor we pursue, Hashem is with us, invisibly guiding and assisting us along. By thinking about these ideas, may we learn to see Hashem's invisible, guiding hand, thus motivating and inspiring ourselves to grow even further in our Torah and mitzvah observance.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, New York.

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