There are a lot of miracles in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which we begin reading this week with Parshat Shemot. There are of course the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Sea, the provision of manna. But there are two miracles that really ground the entire narrative: the miracle of the burning bush, and the miracle of Pharaoh’s daughter.

The burning bush is an obvious miracle: though it burned, “the bush was not consumed.” There is obvious symbolism in the miracle: that God’s promise was not extinguished in the midst of slavery in Egypt; that the human spirit of the Israelites was not extinguished either. Yet the greatest miracle of the story, it seems to me, is that Moses noticed: ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ (Ex. 3:3) What would have happened if Moses hadn’t noticed? The rest of the story may not have happened.

Yet Moses’ entire life was rooted in another act of noticing and acting, that of Pharaoh’s daughter: “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him.” (Ex. 2:5-6) The pity of Pharaoh’s daughter in this scene is remarkable, as her father had declared that any Hebrew baby boy was to be killed. Yet her sense of pity overtook her. (Rashi comments that upon opening the basket she beheld the Divine presence. Perhaps that presence is most acutely felt in beholding a crying and helpless child.) Had she not acted in this way, we have to wonder how the story would have been different.

Though Exodus is an epic adventure of grand acts, national politics, and divine warfare, it ultimately finds its deepest expression in the small but miraculous acts of ordinary people doing ordinary, yet extraordinary, things. And in particular, the miracles of the Exodus–the overturning of an entire world order based on ‘might makes right’–find their roots in the miracle of the human capacity, our capacity, to notice and to act.

Shabbat shalom.

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