Vaera-Rabbi J Levine Grater
Which God Do We Seek?
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center
Corresponding Sect'y, Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
As we enter the book of Sh'mot, Exodus, and begin to see the God of great power and might, the God that sends plagues, attacks Egypt and toys with Pharaoh's heart, all the while trying to impress both the Israelites and Egyptians, many of us crave this God, not necessarily for the exact actions God takes, but the mere fact that God acts in this real and visible way.
There is nothing like supernatural wonders and powers to grab everyone's attention and make people believe. Many of us would like to see the God of Exodus operating in our lives, sending visible and obvious miracles, saving lives, swooping down and liberating us on the wings of eagles, taking us to a better and more prosperous life in a promised land. Yet, our world doesn't operate like that anymore. The God of Exodus was a one-time moment in history, one that we recount and recollect each year at Pesah. I know that belief in God and the ability to find God's presence in our lives would be easier if we still lived in a world where God operated with overt miracles. Yet, in my study of the parsha this week, I learned an interesting point that I had not thought of before.
With all of the talk of plagues and miracles in Exodus, we rarely talk about the amazing connection to God that the matriarchs and patriarchs had in Genesis. In a midrash found in Bereshit Rabbah, the great midrashic compilation on the Book of Genesis, we find God fondly recollecting the days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, when they believed in God and didn't question God's ways, even without outward or miraculous proof.
The midrash has God telling Moshe about these times, in a very nostalgic way, as a contrast to the way that Moshe himself immediately questions God at the burning bush, asks God for God's name and doubts whether anyone will believe him when he announces the presence of this great Deity. And then, Moshe has the chutzpah to tell God, at the end of last week's parshah, that now that God has arrived on the scene everything is really bad! (Breishit Rabbah 6:4)
Needless to say, this is not an experience like Abraham's of Lech L'cha, where our first parent answers the call of God without question or doubt, fear or disbelief. Something has changed in the psyche of humanity between Abraham and Moses, a shift that has instilled more consternation and less inspiration.
I ultimately believe that we could not function in the world as humans with free-will if God continued to intercede like God did in Egypt. While we might wish for moments of intercession, such as healing a sick parent, stopping 9/11 or helping us win the lottery, once we allow for the notion that God can intercede, but only at very critical moments, then our entire world becomes subjective and faith is even more jeopardized. Intercession is an all or nothing game, and as hard as it might seem, I prefer the nothing so as to be able to live to the fullest of our capacity.
This is not to say that God doesn't act in the world, for I believe God does. However, God's actions are visible through the works of our hands, the deeds of our hearts and the commitments of our lives to the values and dreams spelled out for us in the Torah and subsequent religious teachings of yesterday and today. This is how I understand tzimtzum, the Kabbalistic notion of God needing to recede in the background of reality in order to allow for all the rest of creation to operate fully and freely. We can have emunah, faith, precisely because God provided space for that to emerge.
It is interesting that the God of Exodus, the very God that our people did not believe in or wish to follow, is the one that many of us long for in our lives. I want to argue that we are, perhaps, longing for the wrong aspect of God. Why are we not longing more for the relationship of our first family, a relationship that was based on subtle insights to God, dreams, visions, feelings and faith, not supernatural miracles? To me, that is a more profound and interesting relationship with the Divine. Rather than ask, "Where are the great miracles?" why not ask, "How can I develop the resounding faith of Abraham, the calmness and meditative ways of Isaac, the visions and dreams of Jacob and the confidence of Joseph?" This approach to God might yield more fruit in our lives.