“Can’t you jus’ see ‘im walkin’ on that water?” an elderly lady with a large hat, standing next to me on the foredeck of the Staten Island ferry and holding a bible, once asked me on a glorious spring day.
“Sure,” I responded with a smile, pretty sure that she had only meant to address someone she saw as a fellow religious person and had no missionary goal.
The Rambam states that “miracles” prove nothing. They can be sleights of hand, optical illusions or actual magic. He explains that all the miracles our ancestors experienced in Egypt and the desert were divine ways of addressing their needs, not intended as “proofs” that Hashem was behind them. Only the actual and direct interaction with Him at Har Sinai cemented Klal Yisrael’s belief in Hashem and Moshe’s reliability.
Which is why the performance of a wonder cannot, at least alone, establish a prophet’s credentials. In fact, as our parsha notes, a self-proclaimed prophet’s miracle can be totally meaningless.
“If there appears in your midst a prophet or a dream-diviner, who gives you a sign or a portent, saying, ‘Let us follow and worship another power’… and the sign or portent comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For Hashem is testing you… (Devarim 13:2-4).
In fact, when I was once asked by an actual missionary whether I knew that Christianity’s object of veneration is hinted at in the Torah (with the questioner ready, I knew, to offer mistranslated and misinterpreted pesukim in Yeshayahu), I readily answered yes. And pointed out the pasuk above – and the one immediately preceding it: “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it” (13:1).
In fact, the Baal HaTurim, in non-censored editions, offers a poignant gematria. The numerical value of the phrase “in your midst,” he notes, equals that of the phrase “this is the woman.” And that of “prophet,” the next word, “and her son.”
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran