A Dialogue (circa 1500 BC):
Enter God and Moses
“I actually want to continue with something you were saying last week.”
“You were complaining about the new brickwork installments. Your people were upset that the orders increased even though supplies were short.”
“He said, ‘No straw.’ I distinctly heard him say that. He’s a cruel tyrant.”
“I understand that. But when the people came to complain to you, you said nothing. You kept it all in. And then you sat down here and attacked me. Classic displacement. Impotent rage.”
“Must you always use this terminology with me?”
“It’s useful. Plus, in another generation, there will arise among My people one such as Sigmund Freud. He will explain it all quite well. Anyway, It is written in plain enough language, Moses. ‘And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them.’ That was in Exodus 2.23, 2.24, 2.25.”
“You only mentioned the fathers. What about the mothers? Why are you always ignoring the mothers?”
“Stop interrupting. And you should talk. Anyway, then I said, ‘I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt . . . And I will put forth My hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof. After that he will let you go.’ That was Exodus 3.17 and 3.20.”
“You’re as impatient as a bar mitzvah kid with a new iPhone. Listen! Instead of dealing with the issue in front of you; rather than addressing the people directly, counseling with the patience that you so sorely lack, comforting them in their affliction, you yell at ME! You said, “Lord, wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with this people? Why is it that Thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he hath dealt ill with this people; neither hast Thou delivered Thy people at all.”
“Exodus 5.22-23. I know you. You made me write it all down.”
“But you missed the last part. Your ears were stopped up with anger. I said right at the end last week, ‘Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.’ Exodus 6.1. You may think it cruel of me to say so, Moses, but as God I am not human. I didn’t make this mess. You humans did. And you humans need to understand that the mess is yours to fix. The best, the very best, the absolute best I can offer you is not that you will never suffer or die; hardly—that is axiomatic to what it means to be a human. But there will be meaning in the suffering. Metal forged and strengthened is made more strong. There will be compassion and love and kindness shown from one to another in the midst of the suffering that will transcend the darkness and teach us that we are better than the worst things ever done to us. It means that at the foundation of our existence is the capacity for hope, for light, for love. That is when I stopped talking last week, but I don’t think you heard me. And I get it. The cruelty of what is going on is incomprehensible. The suffering is enormous. And yet I am here to say that in every generation, among all My people all over the planet, there is pain and suffering and strife. There is unjustified cruelty. And yet. And yet it is actually all within your capacity to change. One person at a time, one conversation at a time, one act at a time, and yes, even one argument at a time. I actually like it when you argue with me. I appreciate your righteous anger in defense of your people.”
God and Moses exit, pursued by a rabbi
In Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, the final book from the late, great Amos Oz, we are reminded of Uri Zvi Greenberg’s poem about Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev. Paul Robeson sang about this as well. The actual song is here. “Good morning to you, Lord of the universe. I, Levi Isaac, son of Sarah, of Berdichev, have come to you in a lawsuit on behalf of Your people Israel. What have you against Your people Israel? And why do You oppress Your people Israel? And I, Levi Isaac, son of Sarah, of Berdichev, say: ‘I will not stir from here. An end there must be to this! It must all stop! Hallowed and magnified be the name of God.’”
And the plagues came. This week, in parashat Va’era, the retribution begins. It is not just frogs and lice, but bombs and bullets. It’s planes and tanks. It’s horrible destruction and conflagration. It is the price we humans inflict upon ourselves for the suffering we humans inflict upon ourselves. It is young men and women, by the millions, sacrificing their lives to defeat evil in the Second World War and not just in wave after wave at Omaha Beach, but in rationing, and letter writing, and love notes, and being a modest link in the supply chain to soldiers abroad. It is in the uncommon bravery of Congressman John Lewis, once a young man kneeling in prayer as his head is broken open on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. It is Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney being lynched in Philadelphia, Mississippi so that African Americans could vote.
And it is this: Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg of blessed memory once recounted that after the Second World War, an escaped survivor came to Baltimore to bear witness to members of the Hertzberg family who were killed in Poland. He told us, his students, that this witness recounted an incident where a small band of Jews were planning to go to their deaths fighting; if the end was to be the ovens, then they might as well die resisting. And I will admit my own attachment to this idea. During my trips to Vilna and Minsk in the last year, I imagined often what I would have done had I been born into those circumstances.
But one relative of the Hertzbergs, a rabbi, counseled differently. The resistance came up against not only Nazis, but Shabbat. “It is the Shabbat,” this rabbi is purported to have said. “That is greater than all of us.” And according to Rabbi Hertzberg, the rabbi and his people were marched to their deaths singing songs to welcome Shabbat.
It is one of the most humbling and challenging stories I have ever encountered as a rabbi. But it echoes in ways that are eternal and true and perhaps most important, universal.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst thereof, we hanged up our harps. For there they that led us captive asked of us words and song” (Psalm 137).
“Avadim hayeenu (Once we were slaves) atah bnai chorin (and now we are free!)” we sing each Passover. We sing our oppression.
Alan Lomax discovered such resilience when he lugged his recorder throughout the South more than 70 years ago to catalog the African American voices of resistance and freedom. Amiri Baraka writing as LeRoi Jones showed this to be true in “Blues People” when he demonstrated how the slave song was a matter of both survival as well as moral and spiritual transcendence.
I will leave you, fittingly, with Amos Oz. He did not “go gentle into that good night” but rather implored us, his readers, to keep reading, to keep arguing with one another and with God, and to forge an even stronger alloy of justice, love and hope.
He writes in Dear Zealots: “There is a little guide in each of us. We are a nation of guides. We all like to teach, to enlighten, to disagree, to shed new light, to oppose, or at least to interpret everything differently. A climate of disagreement is often the right climate for a life of creativity and spiritual renewal. In its good times, the Jewish civilization is one of doubt and disagreement. For thousands of years, Jews added layer upon layer of texts that refer to the texts that preceded them, which in turn refer to even earlier ones. ‘Refer’ does not always mean merely adding on another level or building up another floor. Very often, the new text aims to undermine its predecessors, to show them in a different light, or to suggest a change, an improvement, or a replacement. The story of Jewish culture is an age-old game of interpretation, reinterpretation and counter-interpretation.”