Back in the early 2010s, I used to volunteer my eyesight to a woman who was in her late 80s and increasingly experiencing blindness. During our sessions, she would often say things like, “I wonder how this medicine affects my eyesight,” or “I wonder how memory loss works.” I would promptly pull out my pocket computer that masquerades as a phone and search out whatever answer she wanted.
Today, no one has to wonder about anything because the internet can answer our questions almost immediately. But I worry that if we lose wonder as a verb, we might also lose it as a noun.
In his book God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.”
And what is our state of mind? Heschel goes on to say that we “fell into the trap of believing that everything can be explained, that reality is a simple affair which has only to be organized to be mastered. All enigmas can be solved and all wonder is nothing but ‘the effect of novelty upon ignorance.’”
In Parashat Vaera, we find Moses and Aaron appearing before Pharaoh, who didn’t know who they were and what they represented. Expecting the brothers to prove themselves, he tells them tnu lachem mophet. Make a wonder for yourselves. Amaze yourselves. Moses and Aaron respond by performing a miracle and turning a rod into a snake.
Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk highlights the peculiarity of the word lachem. One would have expected Pharaoh to say tnu li mophet — make a wonder for me. After all, the whole point of this exercise is to show Pharaoh the power of God. And yet, the word is rendered in the plural. Who is the plural “you” to whom Pharaoh is referring?
Rabbi Elimelech notes that after Moses and Aaron displayed their marvel and turned a rod into a snake, Pharaoh’s magicians did the same thing with their own rods. Since Pharaoh’s magicians were able to create wonders regularly, Pharaoh had become accustomed to them.
Moses and Aaron might have become accustomed to it too. They had already seen a staff turn into a snake earlier in Exodus, when God appeared to Moses at the burning bush and sought to convince him to step up and accept his destiny. They saw it again when they performed the same miracle before the elders of Israel to convince them of Moses’ mission. This was the third time Moses was performing this wonder. Yet the real wonder, Rabbi Elimelech points out, is that it continued to be a wonder for Moses and Aaaron. It was like the first time, every time.
What wonders have we become accustomed to? The sun? Breathing? Food turning into energy? While we understand the science behind these phenomena, they are nonetheless amazing. Heschel reminds us that finding “an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to [the seeker’s] ultimate wonder.” Scientific knowledge makes these things even more of a wonder, not less. The challenge is to continue to be amazed by these wonders. “Life is routine and routine is resistance to the wonder,” Heschel warned.
The Baal Shem Tov taught: “Replete is the world with a spiritual radiance, replete with sublime and marvelous secrets. But, a small hand held against the eye hides it all.”
The ability to wonder is a glorious skill being lost by the overabundance of information. But there is indeed a difference between saying, “I wonder” and “I want to know.”
A friend wondered the other day if $2 bills are still being printed. A simple internet search would have put the matter to rest, but imagine the feeling of not looking up the answer and then one day getting a $2 bill back for change.
This Shabbat, I encourage you to reclaim wonder as a verb. Wonder about things that do not have simple answers. Wonder at worldly splendor. Appreciate the miracles that keep you going. Wonder at your own abilities. Appreciate your journey and how far you have come.
Heschel wrote: “What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”
Tnu lachem mophet. Make a wonder out of something. Make it like the first time every time and carry it forward into your week.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Jan. 1, 2022. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.