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Parshat Vaera

A miracle within a miracle

The plague of hail is described in our parsha as fire within ice; in the words of Chazal it is “a miracle within a miracle.” The idea of “a miracle within a miracle” is also found in connection with other events throughout history. Intuitively the reader understands that such a description is an attempt to enhance our amazement over God’s clear, direct, and overt intervention in this world. Yet a closer look at the commentaries reveals that this description means different things to different people.

While the midrash in Shmot Rabba is the first to inform us that the plague of hail constitutes “a miracle within a miracle,” later commentaries have argued over the meaning of these words. The Maharal explains that the hail contained two levels of miracles. Firstly, the combination of fire and water was unnatural. Secondly, the quantity and quality of the hail was miraculous- the amount that fell and the strength with which it fell was extraordinary. (Gur Aryeh Shmot Chapter 9) The Re’em also believes that there were two miracles, but he disagrees as to the latter. He explains that in addition to the miraculous combination of fire and water, the second miracle was that the fire descended from heaven, which is “in opposition to its normal motion, as it says ‘the fire went down to the ground.’” (Mizrachi Shmot 9, 23)

According to the Maharal the two miracles were not equally remarkable. While it is truly unnatural for fire and ice to mix, hail itself is a natural phenomenon and the second miracle merely related to the timing, quality, and quantity of the hail. The Re’em, on the other hand, sought out two equally impressive miracles, both of which were unequivocally unnatural. 

The Re’em’s interpretation of a double miracle is similar to that of the Midrash Rabba’s explanation of the miracle of Aaron’s staff. The gemara states: 
‘Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs.’ Rabbi Elazar explained [this was] a miracle within a miracle. (Shabbat 97a) 
The midrash explains what the two miracles were: 
Rabbi Elazar said: A miracle within a miracle. This teaches that the staff returned to its [original] form and swallowed them. (Shmot Rabba, Vaeyra, 9)
According to the midrash Aaron first transformed his staff into a crocodile, then it returned to its original form, and only then did it open its mouth and swallow the other staffs. Thus, there were two miracles that defied nature.
This search for more and more miracles emphasizes the importance of open miracles. It stems from our primal human desire to meet God “face to face,” to feel God’s existence and presence in all its power and glory. As the Shem Mishmuel explains: 

When the angel of fire descended there [the cloak of God’s] hiddenness was removed… and this is the glory of the blessed God, there is nothing besides Him and no existence for any creature without Him. (Shem Mishmuel Vayera) 
As the Shem Mishmuel points out, when God reveals Himself through a miracle He reveals that He is also the cause of nature.

Another explanation of “a miracle within a miracle” surrounds a cryptic event in the life of Elisha the prophet. After children taunt the prophet two bears emerge from a forest and devour the children, seemingly a miraculous punishment for their sins. The gemara presents a disagreement between Rav and Shmuel surrounding this miraculous event:
“Two bears emerged from the forest and they devoured from them forty and two children.” Rav and Shmuel [disagreed]. One said: This is a miracle. And one said: This is a miracle within a miracle. The one who said miracle [said so because] there was a forest, there were no bears; the one who said a miracle within a miracle [said so because] there was no forest and there were no bears. (TB Sotah 47a)

According to the latter opinion, it was not just the emergence of the bears from the forest that was miraculous, but also the appearance of the forest itself. Neither had existed previously. According to this opinion the scenery of the event, and not just the event itself, was created ex nihilo just for this occasion. 

And so we see that the desire to explain an event as “a miracle within a miracle” can stem from a desire to enhance the miraculous, to multiply it and then marvel at its scope. The mere existence of a disagreement as to the exact nature of this miraculous event can be understood as a subtle competition over who can make the story more compelling.

 “A miracle within a miracle” can also be explained as a miracle that is in defiance of all logical explanations and expectations. As Rashi explains in relation to another event in Elisha’s life, when the prophet sweetened water by adding salt, “Although salt is something that ruins the water, here there is a miracle within a miracle.” (Rashi Melachim II, Chapter 2) It is miraculous that the water was made sweet in and of itself, but the manner that it was accomplished makes it all the more noteworthy- a miracle performed through miraculous means. Similarly, Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that when Chananiah, Mishael, and Azarya were saved from the fiery furnace this too constituted “a miracle within a miracle,” for instead of extinguishing the flames of the furnace, God chose to protect their bodies from harm. 
For this is the way of blessed God, when He does signs and wonders with the righteous He makes a miracle within a miracle for them, in order to enhance the sign and wonder. And so we find with Chananiah, Mishael, and Azarya, when they were thrown into the fiery furnace. It was possible [to save them] with a small sign, by extinguishing the fire, but to enhance the sign and wonder the fire remained at its full strength and did not harm them. (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Shmot 13)

Rabbeinu Bechaye’s language implies that God in some way “shows off” His absolute power in miracles that, completely unnecessarily, defy the laws of nature. 

Radak takes a different approach to this phenomenon. He explains that when Sarah finally became pregnant with Yitzchak it too was a miracle within a miracle, for Sarah got pregnant both despite her barrenness and despite her old age. (Radak Bereishit 11) This opinion makes it clear that one event can be seen through multiple lenses, each one highlighting a different aspect of the miraculous and turning it into “a miracle within a miracle.” We tend to emphasize the definition of a miracle as the Divine act, the “effort” it takes, instead of the natural circumstances that must be overcome. Radak’s explanation shifts the focus from the Divine to the human- a miracle is in the eye of the beholder. It is defined by the way we choose to see the event; how much we allow ourselves to be uplifted by something that others may see as minor.
Two Spanish commentators from the 12th and 13th centuries offer another way to understand “a miracle within a miracle.” Ibn Ezra explains:
And so it says, ‘Behold I will kill your son, your firstborn,’ and secondly, ‘because the firstborn of Israel escaped.’ And this is a miracle within a miracle. (Ibn Ezra, Tehillim 135, 8) 
Ibn Ezra explains that the plague of the firstborn was also “a miracle within a miracle” for not only did the firstborn of the Egyptians die, but the firstborn of the Israelites lived. According to this explanation “a miracle within a miracle” is when the additional miracle limits the scope of the first miracle.  

Ramban offers a similar explanation; he explains that “a miracle within a miracle” is when there is “a miracle” and an “opposing miracle.” 
’For the horses of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and horsemen into the sea, and he brought back the waters of the sea upon them’ while ‘the Children of Israel walked on dry land in the sea,’ and this is a miracle within a miracle. (Ramban, Shmot 15, 19)

For Ramban the ability of the Children of Israel to walk on dry land in the sea while at the same time the Egyptian army drowned in the same waters constitutes “a miracle within a miracle.”
 The many examples of the phenomenon of “a miracle within a miracle” offered by these commentators reflect the many different approaches there are to the miraculous. The first three approaches we explored focused on enhancing the scope of the miracle- not just a miracle, but an open miracle, not just a miracle but a powerful miracle, not just a miracle but an explicit miracle. They each saw the phenomenon of “a miracle within a miracle” as the pinnacle of the miraculous. 
On the other hand the last two opinions we explored put forth a very different understanding of the miraculous. The Radak’s idea shifted the focus. He pointed out that a single event can be broken down into a multitude of small miracles, yet this is wholly dependent on us and the way we choose to view it. 

The final idea we explored is also an unusual one. It suggests that a miracle is something that may also need to be contained. The idea that a miracle may not only lead to fortune but also misfortune is not a typical way to look at the miraculous. But this misfortune is familiar to us. Perhaps a better known example can be found in the story of Choni Hamaagel who first prayed for rain and then had to pray to stop the torrential downpour. This point of view does not see “a miracle within a miracle” as the pinnacle of the miraculous, but rather as a miracle with clear boundaries, a miracle that manages to overcome its own overflowing abundance. 

The effort to find such a miracle and define it as “a miracle within a miracle” can teach us that even though we desire God’s revelation and marvel at it, we also understand that the world could not exist in the face of God’s absolute abundance. An abundance of revelation, an abundance of miracles, would flood the world and, like the kabbalistic idea of shvirat hakeilim, we could not contain it- it would break us. The beginning of the Book of Shmot describes such an abundance of miracles. However, it also reveals the difficulties that such miracles present. The force of the revelation manifested by such miracles shakes all that exists. Such a flagrant exposure of the Divine may discomfit those who see it. When the Holy One, blessed be He, exposes Himself to his creatures it may elicit an opposite reaction; it can cause the viewer to want to cover himself, to put up boundaries. Just as at times we may want to release the brakes and let loose, to be open and honest and straightforward, there are other times when such openness is unwanted. There are times when we see the unbridled and unbounded as an intrusion, as a lack of propriety and a form of miscommunication. So when we wish for the good old days of yore, for the times of the Bible and of prophecy, it serves us well to remember this lesson. For even when a miracle is warranted and good, sometimes “a miracle within a miracle” is also necessary so we can withstand the force of the miracle.

English Translation by Debbie Zimmerman

Tue, March 20 2018 4 Nisan 5778