Parshat Va’etchanan

By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman, AJRCA President

Remembering a Miracle

The Bible has a memory on its own. There are moments when the narrative reflects backward to portray a brighter future as if to teach tomorrow’s possibilities are carefully built upon the experiences of yesterday’s failures and triumphs. It is commonly noted that when the Bible mentions a location or a circumstance that existed in the past but has relevance for the present—for example, “as is the case today”—this is more than a point of reference for the reader. It reveals a crucial technique of biblical storytelling. The text is not meant to be simply a historical record of past events. It has a divine purpose as a projection into the future. The book of Deuteronomy wavers between tenses frequently to bring us closer to the history of the Israelites and to inspire within us the awesome potential for God’s presence in the future.

The series of questions that end Moshe’s first teaching to the people exemplifies the memory of miracles. Moshe poses the questions the people may ask in the future.

“Has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known? . . . Have any people heard the voice of God speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived? . . . Or has God ventured to go and take for God’s Self one nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm, and by awesome power, as YHVH your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?”

We’re not quite certain what miracles this generation witnessed. In fact, the book will make great efforts to mention that divine revelation occurs with those present and those absent from before or not yet born in the future. Moshe’s expressions of amazement at this moment transcend the literal experience and introduce the power of memory. More than a recollection of past events, the framing of the questions here is an opportunity to affirm the remarkable character of the people and the uniqueness of their destiny.

Moshe reminds the people that any relationship they have with the God of All will be through their historical and circumstantial connection. They will always be a people who have been redeemed. Their salvation will forever be manifest “by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war.” Not by miracles. Through this blessed status they are not to enjoy the riches of the world by divine gift or fiat. Rather, their covenantal responsibility begins with an acknowledgement that they are taken to be God’s hands in the world.

Remembering a miracle is more powerful than witnessing a miracle firsthand. To remember acts and circumstances that defy the natural order is both to say that our present experiences are a gift and to say that a potential for divine presence is always possible.

Moshe poses these as questions to reveal the delicate nature of memory and hope. Whether or not the answer to his questions points to the divine election of the Jewish people, he is identifying the very nature of potential as an aspiration situated between the past and the future. And if his people are to enter the Promised land, they will need to recognize and celebrate their heritage as well their legacy.

*This commentary originally appears in Rabbi Joshua Hoffman’s The Holiness of Doubt. Go to Amazon or Rowman & Littlefield to purchase a copy of the book.