by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 20, 2015
In the Torah section of Lekh Lekha, G-d appears to Abraham and reveals to him what He has in store for Abraham and his offspring. “And He said to Abram, ‘Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them four hundred years. But also the nation that they will serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth’” (Bereshit 15:13-14). G-d foretells to Abraham of his offspring’s eventual long sojourn amongst the Egyptians who will persecute them but in the end will be saved at the hands of G-d in a glorious manner.
In commenting on the last aforementioned verse, the great medieval Torah giant R. Saadia Gaon (882 – 942) offers an intriguing thought: As a result of just a mere few words of “I shall judge”, the offspring of Abraham, the people of Israel, merited such tremendous miracles during their exodus and redemption from Egypt. How much more can be expected in the future redemption of the Jewish nation at the Messiah’s arrival, of which so many more words and sentences have been written in our Scriptures!
In a similar vein, but amplifying and expanding further on the aforementioned, is an enigmatic comment by the renowned medieval Torah luminary R. Yaakov ben Asher (circa 1269 – circa 1343), known as the Baal HaTurim, explained by the latter day Torah scholar R. Aharon Levin (1879 – 1941), author of Sefer Ha’Drash v’HaIyun.
The Baal HaTurim notes (Sh’mot 19:4) that there are four verses in the entire Holy Scriptures that begin with the Hebrew word “atem” (meaning you in the plural form). One verse reads (Sh’mot 5:11), “You [Atem] go take straw from wherever you find it, for nothing will be reduced from your work.” Later, we find (Sh’mot 19:4), “You [Atem] saw that which I did to Egypt and I carried you on the wings of eagles and I brought you to Me.” Towards the end of the Torah (Devarim 29:9), we find the verse, “You [Atem] are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd, your G-d: Your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel.” And, finally, there is a verse (Yeshaya 43:10) that reads, “You [Atem] are my witnesses, said G-d, and My servant who I have chosen, so that you will know and believe in Me, and understand that I am He; before Me nothing was created by a god nor will there be after Me!”
To explain the meaning of the Baal HaTurim’s cryptic comment and the common denominator of these verses in their usage of the word “atem“, R. Levin, also known as the Reishe Rav, noted that there is a fundamental change that appears to have occurred in the course of the history of the Jewish people.
Initially, upon beginning as a nation, we were beneficiaries of open miracles. G-d performed acts for our benefit that openly defied nature. The entire course of events surrounding the Exodus, starting with the burning bush and continuing throughout all the plagues, was replete with open miracles. Our existence was one in which G-d was apparently altering the laws of nature on our behalf. This miraculous period lasted throughout our entire sojourn in the desert, including the miracles of the Manna, the Clouds of Glory and the Well of Miriam – all super-natural phenomena. After our ancestors entered the Land of Israel, they continued to experience various open miracles but such occurrences seemed to become fewer and fewer. In our times, it appears, we no longer experience open miracles. Our history began with a host of open miracles whereas today open miracles do not seem to occur at all.
R. Levin, however, opined that the aforementioned is actually a mistaken view of Jewish history. It is not true, R. Levin asserted, that we no longer have open miracles today. An ongoing and continuous open miracle is still occurring. This miracle is that the Jewish people are living to this day, the mere fact that they still exist.
R. Yaakov Emden (1697 – 1776), also known as Yavetz, in the introduction to his Siddur, wrote: “As G-d Lives, when I think about the miracle of the continued existence of our nation, it is as amazing to me as the Exodus from Egypt.” It is definitely a documented fact (as we read in the Passover Hagadah) that in each and every generation “they rise up against us to destroy us and [miraculously] the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hand.” R. Emden went on to marvel that the miracle of the continued existence of the nation, against such tremendous odds and in the face of such unrelenting persecution, is not a one-time miracle, as were the course of events surrounding the Exodus, but is a constant miracle which occurs in each and every generation and throughout all generations.
When Fredrick the Great (1712 – 1786), the famous monarch of the Prussian kingdom, asked the wise men of his court for a succinct proof of the existence of G-d, he was given a two word answer: “the Jews.” No greater proof is needed that there must be a G-d in Heaven than the fact that the Jews still exist as a people.
Many are also familiar with the famous essay (“Concerning the Jews”) that Mark Twain published in “Harper’s Magazine” in 1899 in which he asserted a similar observation.
With the aforementioned thoughts in mind, R. Levin noted, we can understand the significance and meaning of the four verses beginning with the word “atem“, noted by the Baal HaTurim.
When our ancestors were in Egypt, enslaved and oppressed by the wicked Egyptian, they wondered: How could it be that they are being told that “you [Atem] go take straw from wherever you find it”? How could they be subject to such degradation?
The answer to our ancestors’ question in Egypt is the verse with the next “atem,” “You [Atem] saw that which I did to Egypt …” You yourselves, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob saw that the situation of enslavement and oppression was only temporary. You, the Children of Israel, were later treated as a “treasured people,” “a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.” Despite having to endure the terrible oppression of Egypt, this ultimately led to their benefit. In the end, “You [Atem] saw that which I did to Egypt.”
A time will come, however, in Jewish history when a different question will be asked. The question will be asked, “Why do we not see miracles any longer? Why do we feel a sense of abandonment?” The answer to this question is, “You [Atem] are standing today, all of you.” You, the Jewish people, still exist. This is the biggest proof that there is a G-d who loves us and keeps us and continues to take care of us in spite of what we sometimes perceive as abandonment.
Finally, towards the end of days, “You [Atem] are my witnesses.” You, the Jewish nation will be testimony to G-d Himself. The very fact that the Jewish nation still exists is the biggest proof that the Al-Mighty L-rd, our G-d, is still in heaven, still cares for us, and still watches over us.
Now it is only left for us to imagine, as R. Saadia Gaon noted over 1000 years ago, if as a result of just a mere few words of “I shall judge”, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the nation of Israel, merited such tremendous miracles during their exodus and redemption from Egypt, how much more can be expected in the future redemption of the Jewish nation at the Messiah’s arrival, of which so many more words and sentences have been written in our Scriptures!
Imagine what the future has to offer! Imagine the magnitude of the miracles to be experienced then. May we only merit seeing this future speedily in our time.