רונן צור וינון מגל
רונן צור וינון מגלצילום: Avshalom Sassoni,Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

In the book of Genesis and the start of Exodus, the Torah is almost entirely historical narrative. With the Korban Pesach (Pesach Sacrifice) in Parashat Bo (Exodus 12) the Torah begins to weave legal legislation into the historical narrative.

From the beginning of the Torah until the end of Exodus Chapter 11, we encounter just three Mitzvot: to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), which is the mitzvah to have children; to circumcise every son (14:10); and not to eat the sciatic nerve (גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה) of any animal (32:33).

And then in Parashat Bo we begin to encounter a whole slew of Mitzvot. The first is the mitzvah to calibrate our own calendar by sanctifying the beginning of each month (Exodus 12:1-2), followed by 19 more Mitzvot all concerning the Korban Pesach, in Parashat Bo.

Parashat Beshallach returns to historical narrative, containing just one Mitzvah – not to leave the area delineated as the Sabbath limits (Exodus 16:29) – in all its 116 verses.

Parashat Yitro continues with the historical narrative, then segues into legislating, giving a further 17 Mitzvot.

And this past week's reading, Parashat Mishpatim, is predominantly legislative, containing 53 Mitzvot in its 118 verses.

Concluding this legislative section, G-d tells us that He sends His angel to lead us to the Land of Israel and to protect us on our way (Exodus 23:20-25), then tells us of the wonderful blessed life that awaits us in our Homeland, and delineates its borders “from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River” (23:31).

According to all opinions, this defines Israel’s borders as being from the Sinai Desert in the south-west and the Mediterranean Sea in the west, to the River Euphrates in the north-east (vide Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra ad loc. Also Radak to Psalms 80:11, and Tosafot Gittin 8a s.v. רבי יהודה אומר).

Among this, G-d says something which seems puzzling:

“I will send dread of Me before you and I will confuse the entire nation among whom you are coming… I will send the hornet before you, which will drive out the Hivvite, the Canaanite, and Hittite from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year lest the Land become desolate, and wild animals proliferate against you. Little-by-little I will drive them out from before you, until you become fruitful enough to settle the Land” (Exodus 23:27-30).

Puzzling indeed! Surely G-d, Who wrought ten plagues against Egypt, Who split the Red Sea, Who gave us His Torah at Mount Sinai, Who sustained us with Manna day-by-day in the desert for forty years, could drive out the Canaanite nations without using hornets! Surely He could drive all those nations out in a day, without wild animals taking over the desolate land!

Actually, G-d is giving us a crucial object-lesson here:

We had a historically brief period of miracles, which began with the Ten Plagues in Egypt and continued for the next approximately forty-one years until we entered the Land of Israel.

The Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Red Sea, the Giving of the Torah, the daily manna, the daily Clouds of Glory shielding us from the fierce desert sun and the nightly Pillar of Fire warming us against the bitterly cold desert nights – all these open miracles would only last for that relatively brief forty-one year period.

The rest of history would follow natural paths; the miracles would be hidden, to be appreciated only by those who would know how and where to look. Following the Ramban (primarily his commentaries to Genesis 17:1 and 46:15, Exodus 6:2, and Leviticus 26:11), miracles are divided into two categories: open, revealed miracles – events which any unbiased observer would be forced to recognise as miraculous; and hidden miracles – events which are controlled by G-d for specific purposes, but which follow seemingly natural laws.

Thus throughout most of the Tanakh (and, indeed, for the rest of Jewish history), our fortunes and misfortunes have followed seemingly natural courses. A particularly striking example occurred in the period of the conquest of the Land of Israel, shortly after Joshua died:

“Hashem was with [the Tribe of] Judah; he [Judah] drove [the Canaanites] out of the mountain region, though he could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had iron chariots” (Judges 1:19). That is to say, not that iron chariots are more powerful than G-d, but that the war between Israel and the Canaanites ran according to seemingly natural means, hence the more powerful Canaanite armies would take more effort to vanquish.

Indeed, it would take some three-and-a-half centuries before the Canaanites would finally be defeated.

The natural way of the world is that open spaces which are abandoned by humans are taken over by wildlife. So it was preferable that the hostile Canaanite nations remain in the areas of Israel which we had not yet conquered, rather than all of them fleeing simultaneously and letting wild animals proliferate there.

G-d promises blessing “on all the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 2:7, 14:29, 14:19). The inference is that there has to the “the work of your hands” in order for there to be something for G-d to bless. He promises us, as reward for keeping the Mitzvot, appropriate rains in their appropriate seasons (Deuteronomy 11:14) – but the most beneficent rain only brings blessings if people have sown their fields and planted the seeds.

Likewise G-d promises victory in our wars against our enemies – but this can only happen if we actually take up weapons and fight.

Hence the precise wording: “Little-by-little I will drive them out from before you, until you become fruitful enough to settle the Land”. As fast as we settle the Land, G-d will drive our enemies out of it before us.

I note here a grammatical peculiarity in the text, a peculiarity so subtle that few people would notice it; certainly no translation will ever convey it:

מְעַ֥ט מְעַ֛ט אֲגָרְשֶׁ֖נּוּ מִפָּנֶ֑יךָ

The word מְעַט (little) is doubled, and Biblical Hebrew has a general rule that whenever a word is repeated, there has to be a pause separating the doubled word. This pause can be indicated by the cantillation marks (the “trop” in Yiddish, often called simply “notes”), which are classified as either טְעָמִים מַפְסִיקִים (separative cantillation marks) or as טְעָמִים מְחַבְּרִים (conjunctive cantillation marks).

The required pause between two identical words can be indicated by separative cantillation marks, for example: –

  • אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו, “These are the generations of Noah: Noah, a righteous man, was perfect in his generations” (Genesis 6:9): the זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן above the first “נֹחַ” is a separative cantillation mark.
  • וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים עֲיָרִ֖ים לָהֶ֑ם לָהֶ֞ם יִקְרְא֣וּ חַוֺּ֣ת יָאִ֗יר, “They had thirty towns, they called them Yair’s Farms” (Judges 10:4): the אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א under the first “לָהֶם” is a separative cantillation mark.
  • וַיַּֽעֲבִרֵ֥נִי בַמַּ֖יִם מַ֣יִם בִּרְכָּ֑יִם, “He led me through the water, water knee-deep” (Ezekiel 47:4): the טִפְּחָ֖ה under the first “מַיִם” is a separative cantillation mark.

But when the cantillation marks for the repeated word or name are conjunctive, then the required pause is indicated by a pasek, a vertical line inserted between the two words.

For example: –

  • וַיְהִ֕י כְּדַבְּרָ֥הּ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֖ף י֣וֹם ׀ י֑וֹם, “And it happened, as she spoke to Joseph day-by-by” (Genesis 39:10): the מֻנַּ֣ח under the first “יוֹם” is a conjunctive cantillation mark.
  • וְאָֽמְרָ֥ה הָֽאִשָּׁ֖ה אָמֵ֥ן ׀ אָמֵֽן, “And the woman will say, Amen, amen!” (Numbers 5:22): the מֵרְכָ֥ה under the first “אָמֵן” is a conjunctive cantillation mark.
  • וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֶל־אָבִ֖יו רֹאשִׁ֣י ׀ רֹאשִׁ֑י, “And he said to his father: My head! My head!” (2 Kings 4:19): the מֻנַּ֣ח under the first “רֹאשִׁי”.

In our verse, “Little-by-little I will drive them out from before you”, the word מְעַט (little) is doubled, and the מֵרְכָ֥ה under the first מְעַ֥ט is a conjunctive cantillation mark. Hence there should have been a pasek separating the two words: מְעַ֥ט ׀ מְעַ֛ט.

Why no pasek?

I suggest: –

The first instance ever of this grammatical peculiarity occurs when G-d first called to Moshe at the Burning Bush:

וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹקִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה

“And G-d called to him from the midst of the bush, saying: Moshe, Moshe!” (Exodus 3:4).

The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:6) notes that there is no pasek: מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה, instead of the expected מֹשֶׁ֥ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֖ה, and explains:

“You find [that the angel called] אַבְרָהָ֣ם ׀ אַבְרָהָ֑ם, ‘Abraham, Abraham’ (Genesis 22:11), with a pasek; and [G-d called] יַֽעֲקֹ֣ב ׀ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב, ‘Jacob, Jacob’ (Genesis 46:2) with a pasek; and [He called] שְׁמוּאֵ֣ל ׀ שְׁמוּאֵ֑ל, ‘Samuel, Samuel’ (1 Samuel 3:10) with a pasek; but [G-d’s call] מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה, ‘Moshe Moshe’ is without a pasek. Why is this? – It is like a man upon whom was placed a terrible burden, and cried out: Anyone, anyone! Come close to me and unload this burden from me!”.

And then the Midrash elucidates this explanation:

“Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay taught: What is the inference of מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה, ‘Moshe Moshe’? – This is an expression of love, an expression of haste”.

Similarly the term “מְעַ֥ט מְעַ֛ט, little-by-little I will drive them out from before you”: an expression of love, an expression of haste.

This “little-by-little” doesn’t have to be slowly: it can take centuries, as it did with the Tribe of Judah; it can also take a couple of decades, as it did with the Maccabbees. It can be the war in Gaza. Or it can happen overnight – if we but have the courage and determination to settle the Land overnight.

G-d has guaranteed that we will inherit the Land. As in the days of Joshua, as in the days of Zerubavel, and a generation later Ezra and Nehemiah, as in the days of the Maccabbees, this will happen in seemingly natural ways.

Not since Joshua stopped the sun for a whole day in his battle against the five Amorite kings (Joshua 10:5-14) has there been an open, obvious miracle which the entire nation witnessed. All miracles since then have been hidden behind the veil of natural occurrences.

'Natural' Miracles in Modern Israel's history

A little over three-quarters of a century ago, when Israel once again became independent in its own Land for the first time since the Roman conquest, all seven Arab countries which were independent at the time attacked, launching a war of aggression and attempted genocide.

It should have been impossible for Israel to win. Yet a little over a year later, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen lay defeated by this one tiny, new, under-equipped nation.

As with the Maccabbees more than 2,000 years earlier, there was no one single event that was indisputably miraculous. Each individual battle could be [sort of] explained in natural terms: faulty communications among the Arab forces, unexpected favourable weather conditions, demoralisation among Arab forces and civilians, and so forth.

But overall, Israeli victory was impossible…yet it happened.

The same happened 19 years later in 5727 (1967), when again, a vast coalition of Arab and Muslim states conjoined in another war of aggression and attempted genocide. Again, their superiority in numbers and armaments should have been insuperable.

Yet after just six days, the armies of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Kuwait, Tunisia, Sudan, and Pakistan lay exhausted and defeated.

Again, each individual battle could be [sort of] explained in natural terms. But overall, Israeli victory was impossible…yet it happened.

Miracles are happening in our age; but they appear natural.

Miracles are happening every day in Gaza. And I write this as the first two hostages are freed by IDF forces in Rafah.

G-d guarantees to drive our enemies out of our Land before us in seemingly natural ways – whether pursued by swarms of wasps, whether by demoralisation, or whether as a natural consequence of war.

And as fast as we settle our Land, G-d grants us the security we need to inherit it and dwell therein.