Sunday morning a few days before Passover little Tommy comes home from Hebrew school. As he sits at the kitchen table his mother puts a plate of waffles and maple syrup in front of him. After wiping her hands of the sticky residue that's always on the syrup bottle she turns to Tommy with an encouraging smile and asks:

"Tommy, dear, what did you learn in Hebrew school today?"

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Tommy looks up warily at first, weighing his words, then lit up with excitement: "We learned about Moses and of Israel at the Red Sea when leaving Egypt".

"And what happened? Tell me" his mother encouraged. Tommy's next answer comes out in a torrent of words and gestures:

"Well, Mom, you see Moses got the Jews to the Red Sea but the Egyptians were right behind and the sea right in front. What could they do? So Moses sent all the engineering corps forward to build a pontoon bridge over the sea. The sappers attached bombs, which could set off by a radio signal, at critical points along the bridge. To stall for time Moses called in artillery to set up a barrage, a wall of shell fire so the Egyptians couldn't advance. He also called for a smokescreen from special shells. So all night the barrage and smoke screen kept up. It was like, like… like a pillar of fire and cloud! Meantime – Moses got the people moving over the bridge as fast as it was being laid. By morning they all got over. Then just as the last Egyptians left the shore and were squarely on the bridge – the sappers blew the bridge. Some of the Egyptians blew up with the bridge but most just sunk into the sea!"

Tommy blurted all this quickly, hesitating only when mentioning a pillar of fire and cloud. As he concluded his narrative he looked expectantly at his mom, waiting for her reaction. She had gone from incredulous to shocked to being more shocked. After an awkward moment of silence Tommy's mother looked her boy sternly in the eye and asked in an authoritative manner:

"Is THAT what Rabbi Cagan taught you in Hebrew school today??"

Tommy suddenly found something of utmost important in one of his waffles.

"Tommy Katz you look your mother in the eye and answer me!"

Tommy finally looked up and sheepishly answered:

"Nah, ma, he said that God told Moses to stretch out his hand and staff over the sea and it would split: the Jews would cross on dry land, but then the sea would close on the Egyptians," Tommy sheepishly admitted.

"Then why didn't you say so," his mother asked, visibly relaxed now that she'd heard the answer she expected.

Tommy looked up at his mother and pleadingly said: "Because I thought hat if I told you what Rabbi Cagan taught us you'd get mad at me because you wouldn't believe what the rabbi said and you'd think I was making it up".


I was reminded of this story when at the seder night a guest asked me: "Do you believe the story that the sea split literally or do you think it's allegorical?" I was initially somewhat taken aback at the question and didn't really answer seriously until a day later. The answer is a resounding yes! – Without mitigating explanations.

Some people don't believe man walked on the moon and some people don't believe that miracles – experienced by an entire nation and attested to by a meticulous tradition of story-telling from generation to generation – actually happened. We're only seventy years from the end of WW2 and there are people who have no problem denying that the Holocaust took place; only sixty seven years since the establishment of Israel and yet there are people who deny the Arab invasion and intent on genocide and the semi-miraculous Israeli victory. What will happen in another hundred or five hundred years from now?  

If someone came from three thousand years ago and saw a sight such as Tommy initially described to his mother – they would be overwhelmed, because it would be something based on forces and knowledge unknown to the intelligent person of three thousand years ago. So, too, looking back 3,400 years the miracles seem, well, miraculous to us, and they should be, because they are based on a set of rules, laws and powers to which we are not accustomed.


P.S. Everlasting deep thanks to Rabbi Moshe Adler, one of my best teachers ever, from whom I first heard this story. 

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