We all do it. We read something, and instead of taking it at face value, we tell ourselves “that can’t be right,” and then we reinterpret the text to be more in line with our expectations. The interpretation is invariably far more revealing about the reader than it is about the text itself. And as a result, the true meaning of the text is cloaked, waiting for someone else to come along and read the actual words.
Exodus 34:10 is translated by Artscroll as the following:
He said, ‘Behold! I seal a covenant: Before your entire people I shall make distinctions such as have never been created in the entire world and among all the nations; and the entire people among whom you are will see the work of Hashem – which is awesome – that I am about to do with you.
This is a very odd verse, made odder by the translation. The translator, and commentators from Rashi to Ramban, have a big problem with the word “niflaot”, which literally means “wonders” – and so they translate it as “distinctions.’ Or as Artscroll puts it, quoting Ramban, “The word cannot mean wonders, as it usually does, because the future history of the nation did not show greater miracles than God had done in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds.”
Really? This is an excellent example of putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps Ramban, living in a medieval world in which Jews were a comparatively insignificant nation in exile, could not see a bright future for the Jewish people. But today, we can see the words of this posuk as nothing less than a prediction: the best is yet to come.
And why not? Today, Jews represent a vanishingly small minority of the world’s population (13 million out of 7 billion), yet have made a larger single contribution to western civilization than any other: from monotheism to Einstein, from Nobel prizes to 20th century innovations – and even the spread of ideas from Marx and Freud that we now view as wrong (and even evil), but which still rocked the world. The contribution has not been uniformly positive, but nobody can doubt that we Jews continue to punch above our weight class.
If you ask a random person on the street what is miraculous about the Jews, they might answer that it might be that we exist at all – how many nations continue to exist in exile, let alone flourish? They might talk about Israel, surrounded and vastly outnumbered by hostile nations. They might talk about the disproportionate numbers of philosophers or physicists or engineers or even lawyers who are Jewish. But the Exodus from Egypt won’t make the list – the wonders we have seen in our own lives defy logic, and cast the Exodus from Egypt into the background. So the posuk is prophetic, in telling us that the wonders that will befall our nation will dwarf the Exodus. We can read this verse literally.
But no verse in the Torah stands alone. It comes with context, and the context is critical to understanding the other errors that translators make. This verse occurs right after the second set of tablets were forged, and it comes at a critical moment at Jewish history.
G-d had given the Jews the first set of tablets, and even before they came down from the mountain, the Jews had sinned with the golden calf. As a result, G-d wanted to destroy us and Moshe intervened, pleading for mercy, and a second chance. This verse comes with that second chance – it is the New Deal, the agreement between the Jewish people and G-d going forward:
Before your entire people I shall make distinctions [wonders].
Except that the Hebrew is not “before”, or “lifnei” – it is “neged”, which means “opposed”. This verse does not only say that G-d will make wonders in our future, but it says that these wonders will come about as a result of conflict between Hashem and ourselves. The immediate parallel text is the creation of Chava, Eve: she is created as an “ezer knegdo”, a helpmate to oppose Adam. Men need a wife who helps and opposes, testing, questioning, pushing, even at the cost of domestic bliss.
The Torah is telling us that in the wake of the sin with the golden calf, G-d is recognizing that the Jewish people are not going to take G-d’s laws, behave perfectly, and live happily ever after. G-d pushes us, and we push back. G-d throws challenges in our path, and we pray, and question, and even sometimes rage at Him. We rebel and go off the path: as a nation we never fully break loose, and yet we never fully submit ourselves to His will either.
This verse turns the utopian vision of a “happily after” on its head: great things will come about as the direct result of the creative tension between G-d and his people. This is a verse that is saying that the Jewish people will sin. G-d now accepts that. And He will oppose us, and quarrel with us. The product of this oppositional engagement will be wonders that will make the Exodus from Egypt pale in comparison. Jews and our G-d will tussle throughout history, and as a result of that continued opposition, we produce great miracles – in every creative endeavor, including science, technology, politics, and thought.
The verse ends with: and the entire people among whom you are will see the work of Hashem. This verse cannot apply in the wilderness, of course, for the Jews were not living among other nations. This prophetic verse is about the thousands of years of Jewish exile, and Jewish existence today among the nations of the world. It is the Jewish people who are the miracles and wonders that show G-d’s greatness – not because we are perfect servants of the King of Kings, but because we are a difficult and obstinate people, always questioning and pushing back, and even sinning. Marx and Freud may have been self-hating Jews, but these exceptions only prove the rule, as given by this verse: “In opposition to your entire people I will make wonders.”