The Coronavirus has once more confronted us with the absence of God in modern times. This absence is often seen as the cause for much secularism. Since the days of the Renaissance man has become more and more skeptical of the occurrences of divine intervention. No longer, it is argued, are there enough indications for God’s interference in the national and private affairs of mankind. This viewpoint ultimately lead to the collapse of much of religious authority and in many ways undermined the role of religion in man’s life.
When the Israelites left Egypt, divine intervention was most visible. The ten plagues, the splitting of the Reed Sea and the many other smaller and larger miracles gave full evidence for God’s intervention in man’s affairs. Consequently our general reading of those years makes us believe that anyone living under such miraculous conditions would not have had any other option but to be a deeply religious person.
Rashi in his commentary on the Torah gives us however a totally different version of the events: “As the result of the sin of the spies in which they spoke evil about the land of Israel, the speech of God did no longer seclude itself with Moshe for 38 years” (Vayikra 1.1).
Whatever the deeper meaning of these mysterious words may be, it can’t be denied that this is a most remarkable and a far-reaching observation. What we are told is that most of the time in which the Israelites traveled through the desert, there was no special divine providence. God did not speak to Moshe or to the Israelites in His usual way and consequently the Israelites had to deal with the question of God’s interference not much different from the way in which modern man does. Although the miraculous bread, manna, fell and other smaller miracles did take place, it becomes clear that these events did no longer have any real effect on the religious condition of the Israelites. Not for nothing did they say that this manna was lechem hakelokel, repulsive bread (Bamidbar 21.5). They saw these miracles as common events not much different from the way we view the laws of nature. (We are reminded of Rabbi Dessler’s famous observation that the laws of nature are nothing more but the frequency of miracles, something which famous philosophers of science such as Karl Popper have fully endorsed from a secular point of view (1)) Indeed on several occasions the Israelites asked whether God still lived among them.
It is perhaps this fact which makes Pesach so relevant for our own times: the realization that even at the time of the greatest of miracles, many years passed by without God making Himself known in any revealed form or way!
Sitting at the Seder table we often feel that we are reading a story which has little in common with our days and lives. We complain that God has become silent and that His spoken word is no longer available. How than can we believe in His existence and why should we listen to His words of many thousands of years ago? We are today confronted with a Deus Absconditus, an absent God, and no story about God’s open intervention in history is able to reach us any longer. God’s silence has made us deaf. So we complain.
And even when we admit that God did not speak with Moshe and the Israelites for 38 years, we still would make the powerful point that we have not heard from Him for more than two thousand years! So why ask us to deliberate on an event of thousands of years ago with which we have nearly nothing in common?
But with hindsight we may have to change our view radically. We need to realize that the silence of these 38 years must have been much more frightening than all the Divine silence of our last two thousand years. While we are, to a great extent, able to take care of ourselves, and much more independent, this was not the case for our forefathers in the desert. They encountered the emptiness of desert land. There were no natural resources, food, water, or any other basic items without which even the most elementary forms of life are impossible. True, we are told that miraculously they had water and food, but once God stopped speaking with them in the middle of the desert and with the realization that this thundering silence of God went on day after day, accompanied by the frightening awareness that they had nothing to fall back on in case God would possibly also decide to stop providing them with water and food, this Godly silence must have been more dreadful than anything we can imagine. Being used to open miracles and then suddenly overnight finding oneself in an icy absence of any divine voice, right in the middle of a desert, must have been too much to bear. God’s “indifference”, no doubt, created a devastating traumatic experience without precedence. (2)
On the other side, the generation of our parents or grandparents experienced the Holocaust, which was far more calamitous than the forty years in the desert of our forefathers. So why not argue that we are, after all, much worse off than those Israelites who had to undergo God’s absence in the desert? Would this not make the Exodus story completely irrelevant and meaningless to us?
However, it was our generation which, despite the absence of God in the Holocaust, clearly saw the return of the hand of God in the establishment of the State of Israel three years after the destruction of most of European Jewry. Without falling victim to the idea that all this is for sure the beginning of the messianic age, a highly dangerous idea, it is impossible to deny that God’s miraculous interference in the establishment of the Jewish State and the successes of inhabitants which are nothing less but sui generis and touching on the impossible, remind us that despite the Divine silence in the Holocaust, God had re-entered history which make the story of the Passover exodus very relevant. It was Ben Gurion who used to say that if ones does not believe in miracles, one is not a realist.
When we realize that the story of the exodus was mainly a story of divine silence and that only occasionally a word of God entered the human condition, we also become conscious of the fact that the story which we read on the Seder night is most relevant. While the words of the Hagada relate the miracles, the “empty spaces” between the words tell us of the frightening divine silence of these very 38 years. And just as our forefathers must often have wondered what happened to God’s presence, in all these years, so do we. But just as they came through, so must we.
For reasons unknown to us God disappears and suddenly emerges in this great drama called the history of mankind making the Jewish people the ultimate symbol of this queer spectacle.
The art is to hear God in His silence and to see His miracles in His paradoxical “hide and seek” with mankind. It is in the balance of these two facts that religious life takes place.
(1) Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler. Michtav Me-Eliyahu, volume 1. Karl Popper: The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1934, Conjectures and Reflections, 1963.
(2) The absence of God’s word for all these 38 years throws a radically different light on much of the Israelites’ upheavals and complaints in the desert as mentioned in the Torah.
The series on The Perfect Torah versus the Evolving Torah will continue after Pesach.