Barad: A Miracle within a Miracle

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The statement, “it’s a miracle!” is not one that is used sparingly or with any regard to its literal meaning. A free parking spot in Manhattan is a miracle, as is a well-timed sale, or a sports team pulling off an upset victory. Of course, these examples are not the Torah’s concept of a miracle, a "nase". In fact, to truly understand the idea of a miracle is to gain insight into the infinite chachma of God. This week’s parsha serves as an introduction into this study. 

All of the plagues afflicting the Egyptians, as the Torah describes, were severe, and their destructive power of a supernatural caliber. Their effects, the nature of the punishments and their function in demonstrating the reality of God to Pharoah are all well-explored. Yet, the plagues, in so far as their construct, lend themselves to a deeper analysis. A prime example of this type of study exists in one of the plagues, that of barad, hail. The Torah offers the following description (Shemos 9:24):

“There was hail and fire [lightning] flashing among the hailstones. It was an extremely heavy [downfall]. There had never been anything like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.”

Rashi offers the following insight (ibid):

“[This was] a miracle within a miracle; the fire and the hail intermingled, yet the hail is water! But in order to do the bidding of their Creator they (fire and water) made peace between themselves.”

The Ibn Ezra (ibid) agrees with Rashi, explaining how this event was a “wonder within a wonder”.

The importance of a nase b’soch nase, a miracle within a miracle, is quite difficult to ascertain. Through the plagues, we are witness to countless miracles performed by God. The very break in the natural order is the essential factor in these supernatural events, giving man an opportunity to see God’s control over the natural world. If the miracle already represents this discontinuity in the natural order, what does the supplementary “miracle within” add? It must be something more than an additional miracle – that would simply be two miracles. Therefore, one must assume that this “extra” miracle is revealing a deeper concept. 

There are other instances where the phenomenon of nase b’soch nase emerges. In Parshas Beshalach (ibid 14:22), the Torah explains that, “Bnai Yisrael entered into the midst of the sea on dry land.” A few verses later (ibid 29), the Torah reiterates that, “Bnai Yisrael walked on dry land in the midst of the sea.” Why the need for this repetition? The Ibn Ezra (ibid) explains that this too was a “wonder within a wonder.” How so? Wherever Bnai Yisrael traveled within the sea, a continuous wind blew, keeping the land arid and the walls of water upright. However, God directed a second wind to where the pursuing Egyptians were located; its purpose was to cause the walls of water to collapse. Therefore, the Ibn Ezra writes, there were two winds in the sea in two places of close proximity. 

Why does the Ibn Ezra focus so closely on the detail that there were two winds so close to each other? 

There is one more explanation offered by the Ramban regarding another miracle, one that serves as the initial point for understanding nase b’soch nase . After Bnai Yisrael exited Yam Suf (ibid 15:22-26), they encamped near a water source with undrinkable water. God caused a tree to fall into this river (vayoreihu), “sweetening” the water and rendering it drinkable. The Ramban (ibid 25) takes up the term vayoreihu, writing that the root of this term is moreh, meaning to teach. He explains that God taught Moshe how the tree would have this effect on the water. He then entertains the possibility, based on Chazal, that the tree in the water was also a miracle within a miracle, since the tree itself was bitter. Based on this, he says one might consider that vayoreihu refers to God showing where the tree was hidden, rather than something didactic. He concludes, though, with his original explanation – God taught Moshe His ways, where He sweetens the bitter with bitter. 

The Ramban’s emphasis on God teaching Moshe the mechanism of the tree and its sweetening effect illustrates an important idea regarding how we should approach miracles. The few instances of revelation by God in the realm of miracles certainly induce a sense of amazement and wonder amongst those reading (and of course experiencing) them. To read about the splitting of the sea, the tree changing the bitter water to drinkable or any of the ten plagues engenders the above emotions. Yet this is not the primary objective of these events. Clearly, they demonstrate God’s complete control over nature. Beyond this, they present rare opportunities for mankind to study the ways of God, both in the timing of the revelation (for example, middah k’neged middah [measure-for-measure] by kriyas yam suf) as well as the actual miracle itself. The Ramban is emphasizing this latter concept in his explanation of vayoreihu. There were obviously other methods God could have employed in providing drinking water. However, in choosing this method of the tree, He afforded Moshe the opportunity to scrutinize the mechanism of the miracle itself. Moshe was able to study the Creator, gaining not only scientific insights into the laws of nature, but into God’s dominion over this system. This opportunity for analysis serves as an example for all of us. In fact, we see an obligation to participate in this type of study on the night of the Seder. The Rambam (Hilchos Chametz U’Matzah 7:1) writes that it is a positive commandment to recount the miracles and wonders performed by God for our forefathers. This recounting is not simply a review of the events. Instead, it is a time of limud – study – where a person must immerse himself in the study of these events. 

Therefore, we see that part of the very objective of every miracle is the opportunity to study how God relates to the natural world. Recognizing that miracles themselves have the character of limud attached to them, we can now take a further look at their construct. In the Moreh Nevuchim (2:29), the Rambam explains that with any miracle it is clear that no natural cause could have brought about the effect. However, he notes that, “these changes [in nature] were not permanent, they have not become a physical property.” One can deduce from the words of the Rambam that a miracle should never be classified as a true change in the laws of nature. Instead, the essence of the miracle is the knowledge that no natural cause exists for it.

With this basic formulation in mind, it can be applied to one of the above miracles. The case of the splitting of the sea is a perfect example of the concept of a miracle, and what nase b’soch nase adds to it. The Torah (ibid 14:21) describes how God directed an eastern wind to blow over the sea all night, resulting in it being split. And of course, this wind was persistent throughout the travel of Bnai Yisrael over the dry land, keeping the walls of water away. This is the essential miracle, and it is clear that there was no natural cause for this event at that moment in time at that exact location. Yet there is more. It seems that God directed another wind, one in the opposite direction of the original (presumably west). The effect of such a wind would be the collapse of the walls of water, killing the pursuing Egyptians. In general, when two winds are blowing, one from the east and one from the west, and they come in close proximity to each other, they tend to negate their directed effects. In other words, the two winds meeting normally would have an adverse effect on its counterpart. It is this property that is the focus of the Ibn Ezra. He emphasizes that the miracle within a miracle involved these two winds being near each other. Normally, such a confluence of winds would discount the effects of the other. In this case, God suspended this property, allowing for the two winds to maintain independent paths without affecting the other. 

Therefore, we see that a miracle involves an event where there is no discernible natural cause, and the nase b’soch nase emerges through the suspension of a secondary property in nature. God did not change the essence of wind, redefining its nature and giving it a new role. He did, however, temporarily remove one accidental feature, the relationship of two winds in close proximity. This same concept can be applied to the case of barad. God alludes to this unique upcoming phenomenon, where (ibid 9:18) “…there was never anything like it in Egypt, from the time it was founded until now.” The primary miracle, then, was the raining down from the sky of this “hail,” with no obvious cause other than God. However, there is another idea being expressed. The Torah, as cited above, describes that, “there was hail and fire flashing among the hailstones.”  How is this a nase b’soch nase? This “hail” was composed of both fire and ice. Normally, when these two elements are brought together, they negate each other’s effects, much like the two winds. In this case, however, God again suspended a secondary property, allowing for the two to co-exist in this form. We see, then, the same expression of the concept of nase b’soch nase.

With this in mind, it is clear how the idea of nase b’soch nase adds a fascinating insight into understanding God’s revelations to mankind through miracles. To see God’s chachma (wisdom) emerge through these actions, whether at the sea or in the plagues (or many other examples) is a chance to engage in yediayas Hashem, knowledge of God. There is no question that miracles are majestic events, producing awe and wonderment. More importantly, they are vehicles to understanding the Creator in a more meaningful way.