“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage,” says God in this morning’s Torah portion, “and,” God says, “I have remembered My covenant.”
What are you saying? God had not heard our suffering before? God needed to listen, in order to hear? God forgot God’s covenant with us? Is God a human being, like us, someone who sometimes doesn’t pay attention, who forgets important things?
In the midst of a third national lockdown, with the NHS stretched to the brink and medical workers reportedly experiencing more trauma than during war-time, perhaps many of us have been asking this question — does God hear? Or, if God is not your cup of tea, put it this way: does the world make sense? Is it just? Is it meaningful? What does this suffering mean?
When we were enslaved in Egypt, how could God forget a covenant and then remember it?
The Jewish tradition of course has always asked these very questions.
I remember my mentor — and this community’s erstwhile rabbi — Rabbi Danny Rich answering this very question when the pandemic began. He said he chose to understand God as a God who suffers with us in our suffering, a God who is with the vulnerable and the distressed. This idea is found throughout our sacred texts — the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, a midrash, says that wherever we are in exile, the Shechina, the Divine Presence, is in exile too. The very prophet, Isaiah, who we read in the Haftarah today says the same. “In all their affliction,” Isaiah says, “God was afflicted, …and God in God’s mercy redeemed them; and God bore them, and carried them all the days of old.” The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched for civil rights in the United States, having come as a refugee himself from Eastern Europe, who had certainly seen the world’s capacity for cruelty and caprice, believed in this sort of God, not an all-powerful God but an all-merciful one. In regards to the universe, Heschel said, “Between mercy and power, mercy takes precedence—and to the mercy of Heaven there is no limit!” That is, the aspect of compassion and mercy in this world is never-ending, endless, even if the power to always turn things right is not.
“Certainly,” acknowledged Rabbi Heschel, “this doctrine was no song of joy…[It] is one of lament and woe, but it is a lament that contains great comfort.”
Some of us may find comfort in this notion, a God of the vulnerable, who is with us most intimately, as the Shechina, the winged maternal Divine Presence, in this moment. And others may bristle at the notion.
The Tradition has words for that feeling as well — Anger. Anger and doubt is also embraced. Anger and doubt in the face of the world’s suffering. Moses, in many ways, arguably the key character of our Torah stories, embodies that. Moses rages against God. When he and the Israelites are later in the wilderness, and his beloved sister Miriam has died, and the people are near to dying of thirst, God says — command the Rock to give water, and Moses strikes it angrily and yells at it and the people, at God. His anger — our very human anger — How can we be forgotten? How can this happen? Was no one listening? — is there too, deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition.
In fact, the Talmud says that the way we pray, every time we get together like this, is modeled off the way that Hannah, the mother to Samuel the prophet, prayed in the Temple when she wanted a child — and, the Talmud says, her tone was “insolent.” Hannah was angry. And this anger at injustice and suffering was so accepted, so understood, that it became the model for prayer. One could argue, in fact, that anger is important, a primary motivator to pray, to act, to live in this world.
In moments of isolation and suffering, Judaism offers us two paradigms — Rabbi Heschel’s notion of an infinitely merciful world, one indeed that is broken, but still full of compassion. And a God who accompanies us in our suffering, who indeed exiles Themselves with us.
And on the other hand, the right to be angry, to demand action and change, to be in doubt. To be insolent. To rage. To be sad.
In these twin moods, I have been reading the poet Mary Oliver, who passed away two years ago this very month– whose yahrzeit is in fact tomorrow.
We just entered this week the month of Sh’vat, the month of Tu B’shvat, our festival of the trees, when Jewish teaching says the sap begins to run again in the trees, to prepare them to awake for spring. And Oliver has this to say about trees and living in this world, this world of infinite compassion and suffering:
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.